How Inclusive Is the Church towards Disabled People?By: Jake
Next week it is the start of the Paralympics. It is encouraging that the Olympic events for less-able bodied people is gaining appreciation and attention from society. In the UK it will be given full national coverage on TV. It is evidence that as a society we are starting to view people who may not have the perfect or fully functioning body as equals and valuable contributors.
As I thought of this I wondered how we as a church are in our treatment of disabled people? Do we view them as equals to able bodied members?
In the Childrens song “I’ll Walk with You” it says:
If you don’t walk as most people do,
Some people walk away from you,
But I won’t! I won’t!
If you don’t talk as most people do,
Some people talk and laugh at you,
But I won’t! I won’t!
I’ll walk with you. I’ll talk with you.
That’s how I’ll show my love for you.
This is a lovely message about the need to include and walk with those that are different. It does seem to me that children are less discriminating than adults. Very young children often don’t take into consideration gender, racial and social differences between each other. Jesus himself taught that we should love all equally. This Primary song clearly teaches this message that those who are different should be included, not just those that are like us. The church certainly preaches that we should not discriminate against those that are different. As Elder Jensen said regarding those that are different in an Ensign from August 2010:
Even when they are worthy, members whose lives don’t fit the ideal and thus are considered different often feel inferior and guilty. These feelings are heightened when we as their brothers and sisters fail to be as thoughtful and sensitive toward them as we ought to be. Consider, for instance, the unintended impact on a childless married couple when a member of the ward asks them when they are going to have children, not realizing that they have wanted to have children for a long time but have been unable to do so.
Looking through the church website it is clear that the church is making a more active effort to include those that are disabled. In a section for leaders it says the following on the matter:
- Seek ways to help the individuals with disabilities feel loved, accepted, and included. Search for and consider their needs and the needs of their families
- Seek to understand an individual’s needs with sensitivity and compassion before offering to help. Foster a relationship of trust.
In particular it says that in a FAQ section on disability the following:
Q: Under what conditions can a young woman with a disability attend Young Women camp? Under what conditions can a young man with a disability attend Scout camp?
A: Often youth can participate successfully in camp with minor program modifications. Individual needs and safety issues should be taken into account. A ward or stake may temporarily call an adult to be a companion to the youth during the camp.
It seems clear to me from this statements that the church does not endorse discrimination of the disabled. However, the reality for many who are disabled sadly sometimes falls short of this. Two recent experiences really highlighted the fact that despite having an official rhetoric of non-discrimination the less able members of the church are not treated as equals and often discriminated against.
Stopping the the girl with Downs Syndrome from attending camp.
My cousin has Downs Syndrome. Just over a year ago she turned twelve and became a young woman. She has loved the experience of Young Women. Every Tuesday she gets dressed ready and sits at the window waiting for the Young Women’s leader who comes to pick her up. Most weeks my cousin has a wonderful time at mutual. Last year she even went to the Young Women’s camp. She didn’t want to stay the night so her leaders at the time drove her home each night and picked her up the next morning so that she could attend.
This year it was different. My aunt sent the application for camp and my cousin was looking forward to attending, that was until the Stake Young Woman’s president phoned my aunt to say that my cousin could not attend because she was a health and safety hazard. Eventually they agreed that she could go if she was accompanied. Unfortunately the week of the camp, my cousin’s family were unable to attend camp with her because of work commitments, but her ward Young Women’s leader agreed that she would go with her. This was deemed not good enough by the Stake leaders; they responded that it had to be a member of the family who attended with her as they could not be accountable for her actions, and she presented a significant health and safety risk so they could not take her.
Despite the willingness of ward leaders who were exceptional in their inclusion of her, stake leaders refused to let her attend. The sadness is that the stake leaders changed their standards from simply being accompanied to being accompanied by a family member. To change these standards seems like discrimination intended so that they could have justification for not taking a Downs Syndrome girl to camp, even one who previously attended with no problem, who attends a normal school every day without a family member, one who goes to mutual every week with her leader. She routinely spends most of her week with people who are not members of her family, so why should she be required to have a family member present at camp when a ward YW leader offered to be her companion? Why could they not make the effort to include her? Further, in labelling her “a health and safety risk,” they dehumanised her; she is not a dangerous object, but a girl. These leaders not only failed to make her feel loved and included, but they did not handle it with any sensitivity or compassion for her parents. Whilst the attitude of her local leaders was wonderful, all their efforts were tragically undone by uncaring stake leaders.
Hiding the Epileptic
Of course my cousin is just one girl. It is just one anecdotal experience and could not be representative of institutional discrimination at all. Except that I have seen it even closer with attitudes of members towards my Father who was diagnosed as epileptic twenty five years ago. For my entire life I have only known him as epileptic. For most of this time my dad has had a normal life. He was a very successful graphic designer working for a studio in London; during this period he very rarely had epileptic fits. He functioned as normally as anyone else. He even started his own business and helped to market a product from startup to making a multi-million pound profit product. My father was not only successful in his business but he also enjoyed several prominent church positions. He served as a Branch President, a Bishop, Young Men’s President and a High Councillor.
Things all changed about six years ago when through an unfortunate combination of events my Dad lost his business, and we had to move to a new area. Since moving, his health also declined, and he has had more frequent epileptic fits. This has been a real challenge for my dad, as the doctors declared him disabled and told him that he probably will never be able to work again. In a strange coincidence, since moving to this new area my dad has never held a visible leadership position; his most recent callings have been primary music conductor and janitor. In England where members are more sparse, callings are more common. In my short lifespan I have been on Elders Quorum presidency twice, adult Sunday School teacher twice, youth Sunday School teacher twice and been in the Young Men’s presidency. It is very noticeable when you are not given a calling because there are always more opportunities to serve than people to fill callings. Watching my dad, it has been apparent that perceptions of his ability to serve decreased in proportion to his disability, and the status of his callings has declined during that same time. Although we all say there is no hierarchy of callings, we all know there really is one.
Now I don’t think that anyone consciously intends to discriminate against disabled people, at least I hope that they don’t. Yet, people often do it unwittingly. I’m sure that many thought that they were helping my father by giving him less demanding callings and responsibilities, that they thought that it was an act of kindness. As my father said to me, “I will never be considered for any visible role in the church, because they can not look past my condition. I can see it in their eyes when they talk to me that they don’t consider me their equal.” I don’t think they realised the impact that this had on him. Already struggling with feelings of failure because he can no longer work, he sees his diminished callings as a failure in church as well.
Disability and the problem of suffering
People everywhere struggle to handle disability. It does not fit easily into any of the prefigured narratives of the church. Some even assume that people are disabled or afflicted because they deserve it or are less faithful. The righteous after all are blessed by God with good health, clean teeth and a pay check the size of Mitt Romney’s. If you have ill health and you are not wealthy then it is an indication that perhaps you are less righteous. Of course there are statements to the contrary by the leaders such as President Boyd K. Packer who noted:
“There is little room for feelings of guilt in connection with handicaps. Some handicaps may result from carelessness or abuse, and some through addiction of parents. But most of them do not. Afflictions come to the innocent” (“The Moving of the Water,” Ensign, May 1991, 8).
And Elder Nelson who said that:
“For reasons usually unknown, some people are born with physical limitations. Specific parts of the body may be abnormal. Regulatory systems may be out of balance. And all of our bodies are subject to disease and death.” (Russell M. Nelson, “We Are Children of God,” Liahona, Jan. 1999, 103; Ensign, Nov. 1998, 85, 86)
Even when people are able to get past the link between poor bodily condition and righteousness they still refuse to accept disabled people as equals. This is manifest through well meaning statements such as “I hope your father gets better soon,” “We are praying for him to recover,” and “Is your cousin improving?” As well intentioned as these sentiments are they reveal that some people think that if only we had more faith and prayers they will be healed. I’m sorry to say that no amount of prayers, save a dramatic miracle, will make them better. They are disabled and will be for this entire mortal life. That’s okay. That is just the way life is.
The problem of evil and suffering is possibly the hardest theological issue to deal with. We want to proscribe meaning to the suffering – it must be a punishment from God, the result of sin from either the individual or the parent, or it is a planned test given to us from God. Most suffering is the product of a natural world full of inequality and injustice. Not all suffering is God giving us a test or a challenge; the idea that God intentionally made my cousin have Downs Syndrome in order to test her and family is repugnant to me. What kind of reward is it to be given Downs Syndrome for being a extra valiant spirit?
Although many of us struggle to deal with difference and difficulties, these experiences have taught me that we do not know how to respond to the challenges of life that are ugly and don’t have a neat and tidy solution, and that despite a vocal anti-discriminatory policy by the church underneath this there still remains discrimination. Just as despite the fact that the church claims it is not racist and does not endorse racism, the Apostleship and Seventies still seem remarkably white to me. Just as the Brethren keep claiming that women are treated as equals, yet it still pains me that I never hear women quoted in sacrament, or women in actual positions of leadership in the church. Just as feminists, critics and anyone outside of the ideal narrative of the church are treated differently. It is sad that the truth is that if you don’t walk and talk like most members do some members will not walk and talk with you.
- How do you make sense of disability?
- How can we be more inclusive towards less able individuals?
- Should disabled people be given less demanding callings?
- How do you balance personal capability and a church calling without being condescending?