IDPD 2023:Understanding disability inclusion beyond the secular

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By Alexander Ogheneruemu

On Sunday, December 3, 2023, the global community commemorated the International Day of Persons with Disabilities (IDPD). This annual observance, proclaimed many years ago – 1992 precisely, by the United Nations is specifically set aside to promote an understanding of disability issues and mobilize support for the dignity, rights, and well-being of persons with disabilities globally.

This day also seeks to increase awareness of gains to be derived from the inclusion of people with disabilities in every aspect of political, social, economic cultural, and religious life.

This year’s celebration,  which fell on a Sunday (a holy day of worship in Christendom) is remarkable – beyond a mere happenchance. It syncs with a relatively new development (at least in this part of our world) that seeks to take the Disability rights/emancipation/inclusion movement past its conventional, secular terrain to navigate the hallowed sanctums of religion and traditional beliefs.  The move is long overdue.

Inclusion goes to church

Until very recently the idea of inclusion (defined as the practice of providing access to opportunities and resources for people who might otherwise be excluded or marginalized, such as those who have physical, intellectual, or sensory disabilities as well as members of other minority groups) for persons with disabilities within the church seem far-flung. Almost subconsciously, we have boxed in inclusion as a secular concept – leaving disabled people largely pushed to the fringes of church life. Fortunately, a paradigm shift is slowly taking place. At long last, the disability rights/emancipation/inclusion crusade is going to church.

So we need to pay closer attention to the concept of Inclusion beyond secular perspectives.

Appalling negligence, warped mindset

As a person with a disability who has a strong inclination towards the Christian faith, it is my unwavering conviction that ideally, religion, by its pious leanings should be the main custodian of the “inclusion” concept. But what do we have? It is appalling to admit that my experience within organized religion – churches specifically, leaves so much to be desired. Mind you, I’m not alone in this. Again and again, among these people, the discussion pops up of how disability and people with disability are seen from religion/church angle.

For a long, long time, this subject has remained shrouded in the dark mist of an ignorance deeply rooted in a “wrong mindset”. This is the mindset that sees disability and people with disability as a burden, subjects of charity and care that hardly have any tangible contributions to make within the church.

Then there is the mindset that the best these people need is healing/miracles – and by extension, deliverance from some real/imagined devils responsible for their situations. Too often, even among supposedly enlightened believers (leaders and laity alike), a disability is linked to witchcraft or some supposed sin.

At this point I’d like to admit that some of these views are valid – there is, for instance, a place for charity and care, praying for miracles and healing are endorsed in the Bible. The phenomenon of people being possessed by devils is also an undeniable reality of our largely metaphysical world – right from bible times. And so?

Making the distinctions

The big concern lies in discerning the fine lines between “Faith and Reason”. And that is where we as a church (starting from leadership) have largely missed it. Somehow, we have rigidly clung to old, narrow-minded mindsets that stifle the new. See Matthew 13:52 “…every scribe that is instructed unto the kingdom of God is like unto a man that is a householder, which bringeth forth out of his treasure things new and old”.

Sadly, as it stands today, religion (the church specifically) has, for too much adamancy/poor enlightenment come short of the progressiveness that embracing the new brings. Consequently, the few semblances of inclusion {let the reader look up the definition} we see in church are colored in deep hues of “pity and welfare”.

Disabled people get handouts, they hear phrases like “God will heal you”, “have faith”, etc. An approach colored in a Christian way, but not challenged by the Christian faith – this is not the real inclusion per se. I call it pseudo-inclusion.

A better way, renewed perspectives

Now, there is a better way – the more excellent, human spirit-edifying approaches of empowerment – acceptance, total involvement, talent discovery, demonstration and development, the building of self-esteem (disability has a queer way of stifling this), capacity building, etc.

What am I trying to drive home here? One commentator, after reading one of my articles on Disability and religion puts it in a detail that is as clear as it is moving:

Actually, I got attracted to you after reading your article on how the church world sees and views people with disabilities in their midst. They see them as needing no other thing than “a healing touch” from the Lord. And, to this end, they are always “praying” along with them, even when it is obvious that they hardly remember them in their daily prayers. And, who says that “healing touch” of the Lord is the most important thing they need? How about love? How about positive affirmation of their worth as individuals?

“How about seeing beyond their alleged “disability” to see the bundles of talents that are hidden inside their “disabled” bodies? Your write-up opened my eyes to the fact that we could have some Stephen Hawking {a world-acclaimed physicist with a disability}, {Helen Keller, a Beethoven, and many more} hiding in our churches.

“Meanwhile, all that we are concerned with is having them receive a “divine touch” that can restore or repair their hearing or speaking impairments. And, after that, what next? Isn’t the world the better if we have 10 Stephen Hawking whose works impact the world around them more, than 10 million “able-bodied” Hallelujah, praise-the-Lord shouters like me whose presence makes the world a scarier and gloomier place than it otherwise is? Thank you, for helping, through your articles, to get the scales to fall off my eyes.”

Now, you get it. That’s the kind of “mindset shift” we hope for the church.

Mindset shift, knowledge, awareness, enlightenment

My own experience (corroborated by several others) with disability (deafness) within the church fold teaches me that many times “enlightenment/knowledge/awareness and a mindset shift could be the strongest transformational forces even within the church {with all its biases for faith over reason} in this crusade for disability inclusion/rights. After all, did not the Holy Book say: “my people are destroyed for lack of knowledge?” Hosea 4:6.  And Jesus said: “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” John 8:32. This truth is a function of knowledge that changes the mindset and our ways of thinking about a subject.

In Romans 12:1, Paul speaks about the need to change our way of thinking. The Bible challenges our thinking and acting when it comes to how we think about people with disabilities and how we treat them. See 1Cor. 1:27-28.

It is high time that we realize that the Bible {whatever wrong perceptions we have of it from the Old Testament where persons with disabilities, leprosy for example, were by the Mosaic law stigmatized} is not giving any reason for any form of stigma, and that church should be Inclusive for All! This can be achieved in various ways, for example, by improving accessibility to and inside church buildings for wheelchair users, ensuring that sermons can be followed by deaf people through, for instance, sign interpretation (which, of course, is now very much available).

Still, the most important change that is needed is a matter of mindset. People with disabilities are not by definition weak or vulnerable; not all of them need ‘help’ or a prayer for healing! More importantly, people with disabilities want to be seen, recognized, treated, and participate to the degrees that their abilities/talents allow as equal members of the church! This is the essence of inclusion. Sadly, seldom do we find such to be the case.

Of beliefs, religion, and religious leaders

This brings us to new insights on how to more efficiently go about this new-fangled crusade to ensure an “Inclusive Church for All” – a church where everyone is useful. This approach strategically emphasizes the roles of church/religious leadership.

We cannot ignore the reality that most people in the world (85%) have strong religious value systems, whether this is Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, or traditional animism. We also cannot ignore the fact that religion does have a very powerful influence on disability-related stigma, including self-stigma.

What are we saying here? It is this: religion constitutes an influential entry point to understanding and dealing with the stigma of disability. Holding onto old negative ideas and/or practices influenced by religion will not lead to the necessary change about unbiased acceptance of people with disabilities and their families.

What do we need? A radical mindset change. New approaches to awareness that target critical entry points to this subject of disability and religion. Religious leaders come to mind here. We should target the ones whom others listen to, those who are influential and have power. In the drive towards an inclusive church for all, a cascading (top-down) model holds the surest promise. Under this model, the leaders are to influence in the right direction those wrong religious ideas/beliefs/approaches towards and about disability and persons with disability.

Getting it straight

But how can these leaders come up with a task for which they often hold biased, unenlightened notions that they are often totally ignorant of, and ill-equipped for?

The way forward? First, we need to counter the often subtle biases perpetuated by these religious leaders. If, for example, these leaders or their followers hold beliefs related to scriptures that give the(wrong) idea that it is God or some demons who punish people with disabilities for sins committed (in a previous life), we cannot and should not ignore this kind of assertion.

Next, the mindset of these leaders needs to be enlightened on the subject – what inclusion truly is, and the rights of persons with disabilities. Further along, in working towards a disability-inclusive church, we should concentrate on the root causes of stigma, namely fear (of being worthy enough to be accepted and loved).

Then we must address that fear in a better way {see above} that edifies and builds up the inherent dignity of the human person (regardless of disability). And in doing this, we need to examine the very important question of “whom to inform and how to inform them”. This takes us back to the top-down “cascading model” – it all falls and rises on leadership.

A new approach to awareness

It is high time we stopped the simplistic methods of awareness-raising. Awareness does not come from statistics or posters. Awareness comes from a deep, internalized consciousness that what we always believed is wrong. It requires more than a radio jingle or the celebration of World Disability Day. “It requires a 360 degrees mindset shift”.

It is time we see inclusion beyond secular perspectives and work toward an “All Inclusive Church”.

 

Acknowledgments: Rev. Jan Ouwehand, Huib Cornielje

 



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