Where’s the Justice in That? The Social Exclusion of Adults with Learning Disabilities and What the Church Can Do to Fix It

WP_20160610_003   Who is welcome at your church?  What makes you so sure?  What evidence do you have to prove this?

It was a typical Sunday like any other.  I walked into the sanctuary at 10:30am, quickly found my seat in the balcony with my friends and prepared my heart for worship.  I love my church very dearly and I was excited about this being one of the few Sundays I had off work where I was actually able to take in the whole service without rushing off afterwards.  However, my thoughts were elsewhere.  You see, this past weekend I attended the Tio Conference for Disability Theology and Ministry at Belfast Bible College and I could not get the presenter’s prophetic words and challenge to the church out of my head.  Dr. Jeff McNair (the keynote speaker) had made the case that less than 20% of adults with severe learning disabilities are being properly included into the life of the church.  He mentioned the various ways people with disabilities are often ignored at worst and tolerated at best, and he poignantly asked how we, as church leaders, can claim to love our neighbours when our neighbours so blatantly do not include those who are different from us.

Sitting in the balcony provided the optimal opportunity to survey exactly who was in our congregation that Sunday.  I was very pleased to note the wide range of age demographics and cultures represented.  I find it an incredible testimony to my church’s witness in the community that we have young adults and seniors worshipping side-by-side, and that we have at least 30 nationalities in attendance (which for a city like Edinburgh that is much less multicultural than Toronto or London is quite impressive).  I was touched to see that people of all socio-economic ranks were welcomed, and I was happy to note that people in various stages of their faith walk were affirmed.  However, my heart lurched in disappointment at the lack of people with disabilities who call this church their home.    Dr. McNair mentioned that the mark of a exclusive church is silence… and what did I hear during the morning service?  Not loud cackles, not an excessive humming or stemming, and not vocalisations… but sheer silence.  The sound of a passive audience listening to a sole presenter (which is exactly what the majority of churches around the world are subjected to on any given Sunday).

During the conference, McNair mentioned that we were part of history.  He noted that there are very few seminars and gatherings for church leaders around the world to discuss topics related to disability theology.  He asked the question “why is this?”  It is to our great shame that even developed countries like Canada, the U.S., and the U.K. that are so far ahead on so many other areas of ministry are so far behind when it comes to relating to those with intellectual and physical limitations.

This is why having a conference such as Tio (a derivative of the classical Greek word meaning “to lift up, to honour, to advance, to value…in essence to bring someone from invisibility to visibility and to give them a voice) is so important.   Having been in the disability field for the past three years I can attest to the not having many of these opportunities previously available to me, yet I was inspired by the amount of people who attended this inaugural event.  Roughly 100 people were in attendance from Northern Ireland, England, and Scotland and the participants included Sunday school teachers, pastors, lay leaders, parents, and scholars as well as a few people with developmental disabilities themselves.  Sessions were inclusive for all people with a separate option for a specifically designed seminar for people with special needs.  I was also beyond thrilled to see the wide range of experience represented.  We had people who were basically “thrust” into the role through having children with disabilities, people who chose the field for themselves and have been pioneering ministries for the past 20 or 30 years, and people (like myself) who are relatively new to this area.  We even had a few ministers in attendance who admitted to not having a specific passion in disability ministry, but who nevertheless came out because they see the value in at least beginning to question and think about some of these topics.

The sessions ranged from highly academic to more practical and I am happy to inform you that all the materials will be made available for your personal download (at a small fee) in the near future.  Personally, I got a lot out of the conference, but I also realize the need to now start putting these thoughts into practice.  Otherwise, they will forever stay at the level of academic rumination.  Therefore, I would like to suggest a few simple ways that your church can become more inclusive for people with disabilities:

  • Rethinking Loving Our Neighbour

Our fundamental calling is to impart the love of Christ to each person drawing them deeper into God’s immeasurable peace. We are called to love our neighbour as ourselves – to affirm their worth and to give them greater honour than we give to ourselves. BUT valuing another person takes sacrifice- it’s hard work. It is about recognizing the inherent worth of each person, their gifts, their strengths, and the presence of the Christ light in them.

For too long we (as individual Christians, the church and general society) have failed to do exactly this especially when it comes to people who are different than us – primarily people with disabilities. Many pastors will claim they love all people equally and want all people to come to the church, but often the lived out reality and logistics communicate something extremely different. Christians are called to be trail blazers, set apart from the world, but unfortunately, we often mirror worldly ways of approaching someone with a disability, further adding to hurt and marginalization.

It is not enough just to “tolerate” a person with a disability. On all sides and in every way we need to move from exclusion to inclusion, from complacency to change. We need to start thinking about these things and not being okay with the fact that even after all these years less than 20% of people with profound learning disabilities are welcomed and fully included into the life of our church. People with learning disabilities also can be jaded by the church and subsequently reject Christ so we need to think long and hard about the implications our apathy can have on others.

To quote Wolf Wolfensberger: “Indeed without significant cost, an action should not be viewed as advocacy…even if it is otherwise valuable action.”

  • Putting Yourself In Another’s Shoes (Quite Literally)

Last year I was able to present a seminar at the Cahoots Festival near Milton, Ontario.  At this conference I provided participants with a number of activities to begin thinking about what it might be like for someone with a disability.  Two of these activities included trying to peel an orange with one hand and trying to stand and walk with a handful of marbles in either shoe.  The people who tried these activities admitted that both tasks which normally would be quite easy and done automatically were hampered by having an apparent disadvantage.  Yesterday when I was at church I began thinking about how to take this even further.  Do you ever wonder whether or not your church would be accessible to people with disabilities?  Why not try to wear heavy earplugs during the service and see if you can still get something out of a primarily aural experience?  If you need glasses to do virtually anything, imagine what church might be like if you took off your glasses or contact lens for the duration of the service.  On a much smaller scale, as someone who struggles with hyperactivity… I try to imagine what would happen if I didn’t bring my little stress ball to church or if I failed to bring my notebook and pen, then I try to magnify that by about a hundred.  You get the picture.  So much of what we do in our churches is simply NOT accessible to people with physical and intellectual disabilities because we do not KNOW what it would be like to be in their shoes.  So why not ask someone with a disability what their experience of church is and then try some of these activities out for yourself?

  • Making Disability Ministry a Priority

I get it.  We all have different passions and different areas that we think are the most important to focus on and personally I think that’s great.  I think it really adds to the diversity of the Body of Christ and that we can all learn something from each other.  But sadly, it seems that while many churches are focused on church planting, evangelism, and outreach (very important roles), few churches care enough to think about what it would be like to plant a church that includes people with disabilities.  Few churches employ a pastor with a huge heart for disability ministry and few mission organizations ask their participants if any of them would be interested in creating a ministry experience that works side-by-side someone with a disability as a co-labourer.

Think about your church.  Is disability ministry a priority?  Why or why not?  Do you have any interest in making it a priority?  I believe that the Christian calling encompasses all people.  That we are called to witness and reach out to everyone – including, and perhaps especially to, people who are quite different than we are.  Those who are marginalized and often ignored and overlooked.

In his inspiring article entitled What Would Be Better? Social Role Valorization and the Development of Persons Affected by Disability found on the incredible website: http://www.whatwouldbebetter.com/ Jeff McNair and Marc Tumeinski pose the following question:

What does our shared vision of Christian community look like? Who is present in our biblical vision of community? How can the inclusion of vulnerable people better reflect the Gospel vision and therefore strengthen our church community? How can we more closely approach this vision here and now within our church? Given the actual makeup of our membership, might we unintentionally or unconsciously be putting some groups of people outside of this vision? What would be better?

How would you answer this question in regards to yourself?  Your church?  Your Christian university, seminary, or intentional community?  The global church?  Society as a whole?

I believe the key to good disability ministry lies in having an inclusive approach, not in merely being insular.  What I mean is that first and foremost we need to find ways to minister and include people who are different from us.  BUT then we cannot stay on the level of our church having an outreach – we need to also think about how we can more fully integrate with society.  For the past three years I have worked with L’Arche (a Christian intentional community for adults with developmental disabilities).  L’Arche does good work.  L’Arche is an excellent sign and beacon to the world that people with learning disabilities belong and should be valued for their contributions to society.  L’Arche is a great service provider and care home for many adults who would potentially have nowhere else to go.  BUT L’Arche also has one major flaw – we have the tendency to become extremely inwardly focussed.  Working in L’Arche in both Canada and the U.K. I am often surprised at how few people (even in local churches) know who we are or what we are about.  Those who have heard about L’Arche often only know it from the writings of Jean Vanier and Henri Nouwen, rather than as a result of visiting our community for a chapel or supper and actually experiencing the mutual life-giving relationships we share first hand. This lack of general knowledge has sadly even led to a few people believing that I am involved in a cult!  To me this points towards the fact that although we, as a community, are thriving in so many areas, we still need to improve on becoming more outwardly focused.  On thinking about how to work with other service providers and churches to continue to create and foster more opportunities for disability ministry rather than just the needs of our own immediate community.

I have given you a lot to think about here, but I hope it helps set you on the path towards establishing and maintaining disability ministries within your own context.  Next time you go to church, why not have a look around and make a mental note of who is in attendance and what you can do to bring those who aren’t already there into the fold.  And next time the service is completely quiet, why not make some noise… because an inclusive church should never be silent.

 

 

Discovering Discrepancies: The Mistreatment of Adults with Developmental Disabilities in the Legal System

court   Note: This article first appeared on the following website:  https://pjsnpeacesigns.wordpress.com/2016/03/31/moving-beyond-ableism-discovering-discrepancies-the-mistreatment-of-adults-with-developmental-disabilities-in-the-legal-system/  with an abbreviated version published here: http://www.stateofformation.org/2016/04/discovering-discrepancies-the-mistreatment-of-adults-with-developmental-disabilities-in-the-legal-system/.

 

I will always remember the headline in the Toronto Sun newspaper on February 3, 2012: “Toronto police shoot and kill man with scissors wearing hospital gown.”  The day was like any other.  Crisp, clear, and likely well below the freezing point.   A quiet, snowy residential suburb in Toronto, Canada was just waking up and starting its day when suddenly a man appeared out of nowhere holding two pairs of scissors in his hands.  The man was wearing nothing more than a hospital gown and clearly seemed confused and in a daze.  Reports later confirmed the fact that he had somehow made his way out of the psychiatric ward of the local hospital and down the street.  Nevertheless, instead of using a calming influence, the police acted out of instinct, shooting and ultimately killing the man.

Questions were raised concerning the police force’s brute violence, failure to address the man’s mental health issues or request aid from health care professionals, and about why the man left the hospital in the first place; however, four years later, these questions have still not been answered conclusively.  What I do know is that this was a turning point for me in my understanding of disability awareness.  Before reading this shocking article, I had never thought much about the way people with disabilities interact with the legal system.  Today, I realize that having a developmental disability or mental illness significantly disadvantages someone from receiving the support and counsel of the legal system they deserve regardless of whether they find themselves in the role of victim or offender.[1]

 

Our View of Victims

It almost goes without saying that people who have developmental disabilities are more susceptible to experiencing crime done to them than the general population.  The reasons are numerous: lack of ability to fully communicate or withdraw consent, inability to fully express one’s needs, or difficulty exerting physical restraint on an offender to name but a few.  Even more disturbing is the fact that media and society in general fail to acknowledge the severity of the crimes committed against people with disabilities and downplay the detrimental effects such actions can have on one’s personhood.  Most notably, Leigh Ann Davis a social worker for The Arc (an American organization which seeks to safeguard adults with developmental disabilities and provide legal resources for them) commented on the fact that committed crimes are often referred to as “abuse” or “neglect” rather than “rape” or “murder.”[2]

In the United Kingdom, a recent magazine article was published entitled, “Justice is Served, Unless You’re Disabled” in which author Ryan Kyle addressed the stunning fact that while all other forms of hate crime have decreased significantly in recent years, violence towards people with disabilities has increased by 20%.[3]  Kyle further argues that when these crimes are committed, people with disabilities have nowhere to go for support because few lawyers will take on such cases and of those who do, not all are within the law themselves.[4]  Realizing the disparity of justice in this situation, Kyle urges his readers to take action, to educate themselves, and to raise awareness on these matters among the general public.  He writes with conviction, “Failing to recognize or address discrimination and hate crimes against disabled people doesn’t make it go away – it only increases its odiousness.  More atrociously, it serves to make it appear somehow benign or to be expected when it happens.  That its existence and repetitiveness does not make it noticeable or create demand for it to be wiped out is a sad fact.”[5]  He adds, “Justice needs to be done and to be seen to be done, not just for the individual but for all the individuals coming after them, and for the kind of society we are striving to be.”[6]  In particular he raises the issue of childhood bullying and the lack of support kids with disabilities face and asks the question: what is this teaching our children about the way we interact with those who are different than us?

In the United States alone, statistics point to the fact that people with developmental disabilities are 4-10% more likely to be victims of crime than those without a disability.[7]  Children in particular are over three times more likely to experience abuse, and some statistics claim that as many as 90% of children with disabilities may be bullied within the school system. [8]  Our society definitely has a long way to go in how we respond and relate to such horrifying evidence of mistreating those who already find themselves marginalized.

Observing Offenders

According to research done by The Arc, while people with disabilities comprise only around 2-3% of the American population, they account for 4-10% of those who find themselves in prison.[9]  The Foundation for People With Learning Disabilities (FPLD), a U.K. initiative suggests that as many as 7% of adult prisoners in England, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales have an IQ of under 70 and another 25% have an IQ under 80 whereas up to 60% of prisoners have difficulty communicating.[10]  The FPLD further acknowledges the legal system’s lack of clearly explaining the reasons for arrest and trial in many situations and the inability to locate proper support systems to guide someone with a developmental disability through the rigorous legal process.

For someone with a developmental disability, involvement in committing a crime is not always what it seems.  In many cases, people with disabilities may be unknowingly used as accomplices by those they rely on for support such as parents or carers.  They may also unknowingly leave a crime scene prematurely, feel intimidated by the overwhelming police presence and thus confess to crimes they did not really commit, or pretend to understand their legal rights in an attempt to cover up their disability due to shame or fear.[11]  Furthermore, although the death penalty is not permitted for people with developmental disabilities across the U.S., it is still largely the responsibility of individual states to determine what qualifies as a disability.

Finding Fairness

While countries like the U.S., U.K., and Canada still have a long way to go in terms of making our legal system more accessible for people with disabilities, we are starting to move in the right direction.  Organizations such as The Arc, and the Big Issue (both of which have been quoted in this article) identify and address the issues surrounding the unfair treatment people with disabilities face and urge their readers to also raise public awareness.  While one person alone cannot effect massive change, it should be our individual responsibility to determine how we will treat everyone with respect and equality.

We need to be conditioning our children from a young age to see everyone as a unique and whole person created and loved by the Creator.  We need to ask our churches to raise their voice and address such matters openly. We can consider reading up on these issues and lobbying our government.  We do not have the time and space to be silent any longer and passively watch injustice taking place.  As the body of Christ we are called to act and to act now!

[1]“Toronto police shoot a kill man  with scissors wearing hospital gown,” February 3, 2012, http://www.thestar.com/news/crime/2012/02/03/toronto_police_shoot_and_kill_man_with_scissors_wearing_hospital_gown.html

[2] “People With Intellectual Disability in the Criminal Justice System: Victims and Suspects,” August 2009, http://www.thearc.org/what-we-do/resources/fact-sheets/criminal-justice

[3]   Ryan Kyle, “Justice is Served Unless You’re Disabled,” The Big Issue, February 22-28, 2016, 38.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid

[6] Ibid

[7] http://www.thearc.org/what-we-do/resources/fact-sheets/criminal-justice

[8] http://www.thearc.org/what-we-do/resources/fact-sheets/criminal-justice

[9] http://www.thearc.org/what-we-do/resources/fact-sheets/criminal-justice

[10] “Criminal Justice System,” N.D., http://www.learningdisabilities.org.uk/help-information/learning-disability-a-z/c/criminal-justice-system/

[11] http://www.thearc.org/what-we-do/resources/fact-sheets/criminal-justice