Sunday 8 July 2018

How to Consider Disability and Autism: A Primer for CofE Church Leaders

The Archbishop of Canterbury and daughters Katharine and Ellie took part in a BBC broadcast recently. The transcript is at this link and, at the bottom, it links to the audio version.   Hugely pleased in particular to hear Ellie's perspectives on dyspraxia, adding to the powerful voices of Katharine and the Archbishop. On July 13th 2018, there was a disability conference for representatives of the Church of England.

All of this is good news.  I'm blessed with senior figures in the country who are inclusive and enabling. But, how should we think about disability, and indeed about autism and other neurodiversities, in our churches?  Neurodiversities = brains that function in a different way from those of others, e.g. autistic, dyspraxic, dyslexic.
To begin to talk about disability, people need to understand a little about the different ways of thinking.  The "models" of disability.  I'll use my own terms for some of them and a brief idea of what they're about.  I've encountered each in some of our churches.  Note the word 'some', before anyone gets overexcited and thinks I'm generalising about the whole church.  I'm not.  Ready?  Here we go...

Medical Model:  "You are ill.  Our Doctors will fix you.  Therefore, not the problem of anyone but you and your Doc.  Or you might die. We'll pray, and take your funeral.  Job done".

All Your Fault Model: [As I call it].  "You are ill or disabled or neurodivergent?   It's your fault.  If you made better choices, or more effort, you wouldn't be ill/would be able to overcome the obstacles in the way of participating.  Go away."  Arguably, this model explains what we see with the benefits system at the moment, with some people who are desperately ill told to have a 'better attitude' and denied money until they starve, (in case that helps them to have a better attitude to overcoming those obstacles).  In reality, some just die, and the rest suffer.  It's not clever.

Cruel Faith Model:  "God made you ill.  Maybe you did something to offend him.  If you had more faith, he'd have cured you.  Nothing to do with us, guv.  We shall shun you until you improve your faith."

Sainthood Model: "God made you ill because he wanted you to show how saintly you are by suffering.  The suffering is a journey of enlightenment for you.  You will be a special Angel, lucky you.  We'd better let you get on with that Holy Suffering, eh?"

Charity Model "We will use your disability as a way to show others how wonderful we are as Christians, caring for you. You may smile in photographs. We might let you attempt something, then agree that it was noble of you to try ...then ignore it and get a non-disabled person to say whatever you just said."  Various people are given awards for helping us to get perfectly ordinary things, often without even asking us if that's what we wanted.  If we also help other people, we're definitely not given proper awards, as of course we're objects of charity, not stalwarts of the community...

Cheering Social Model:  We are one community, and as a community, we decide how we build and run things and what we spend money on to make them accessible. So we'll build and run something that enables as many as possible.   We accept that some people need good support, but we acknowledge that they also bring gifts, learning experiences, skills.  We decide who we include and who we exclude, so we'll talk with disabled people as our equals and partners, and see how we can include one another.  We decide who we empower and who we disempower, so we think wisely about a need for empowering different groups.  We know sometimes people may bully and ostracise, blame and ignore. So we as strong leaders make it clear that bullying and nastiness towards disabled people is not OK.  We model love and respect.  We choose to care for one another as equals.  Disabled & neurodivergent people have much to offer, and are loved children of God, and we believe that, together, we are the One Body of Christ, each and every part as vital.

It's not a full list.  It's certainly not an academic list either.  But it's a starting point for discussion.

If your loved one was involved in a car crash which left them with life-changing injuries, which of the above models would you like a church to follow, for them?

As a church, we have a brilliant example in Jesus.  
He spent much of his ministry with disabled people.
Nearly every time, we read of him asking them what they wanted, and working collaboratively with them.
When the man on the stretcher couldn't reach Jesus, they broke the building to get him to hear Jesus.  There was no-one saying, "We can't do that to our historic structure".  Jesus didn't say, "Leave him outside until he figures out a way to get in by himself." 

When Jesus's autistic friend Nicodemus had a question, Jesus took time to listen and help.  And, Nicodemus was still autistic at the very end, at the tomb, staggering up the hill with a socially-inappropriate amount of herbs and spices. Not 'cured'.  I've blogged on it.  
When Jesus was seen after the crucifixion, he still had the wounds from it.  He wasn't made perfect.  He was still displaying injury, in his risen form.

We've missed so much by some people in some churches marginalising disabled people.  By assuming that it's 'nothing to do with us, guv'.  By expecting that 'people-like-that' are a nuisance, a danger, a threat, a drain on resources, a bother, a way to get awards for other people.  We've missed out on friendship. On love.  On shared journeying.  On that of God that is disabled, injured, neurodiverse.  I'll make it clear that some churches and some people are fabulous.  We can see good things happening.

So, if you are part of a conversation about disabled or neurodivergent people - who is in that room with you?

Remember what Jesus said about the banquet and who was invited?  Disabled people.  

Honest. Luke 14:13 etc is a starting point.  Better still, an awful lot of disabled people really can repay you - in so many ways.  As leaders, prayer partners, wise counsel, problem solvers, many with skills and patience aplenty if allowed to share them.  I'd recommend the work of the L'Arche communities for how much that shared partnership with us can be a blessing for everyone involved, once we stop thinking about 'cost' and 'burden'. 

Take that opportunity to listen, to learn, to share.

Thank you for reading.  And a big thank you to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Katharine and Ellie, as well as to all those in various groups nationally - Inclusive Church, St Martin in the Fields, etc - who are part of these conversations and part of a renewal of love and respect for disabled and neurodivergent people,  in all our diversity.