Many churches would claim to be inclusive of people with a disability – wheelchair ramps, widened doorways and handrails ensure access for all. So it may come as a surprise to realise that churches are among the least inclusive places in Australia.
Rob Nicholls is the church engagement coordinator with CBM Australia (formerly Christian Blind Mission). Although much of the work of CBM is focussed overseas, for the past five years they have run a series of workshops addressing the issue of disability inclusion in faith communities.
“We knew through anecdotal stories and studies from America that people with disabilities were under-represented in churches and set out to understand why,” Mr Nicholls said.
“We were wondering whether there is something particular within churches, especially when our assumption might be that Christian ethics or understanding would say that the church should be the most accepting place.”
When the National Church Life Survey was released in 2011, figures confirmed what CBM suspected. Half as many people with a disability who are represented in the broader community are found in church.
“The main theme was ‘we should be doing this better’. But churches weren’t quite sure where to start,” Mr Nichols said.
For the past five years CBM’s Luke 14 conferences attempted to identify and address some of the issues that may be impacting on inclusiveness in churches.
Throughout two days of workshops and lectures, participants are encouraged to share stories and discuss effective ways of making their churches more welcoming.
Mr Nicholls said a few common themes have emerged over the years.
At a congregational level, some people might not feel comfortable with people who are considered ‘different’ joining in their worship services.
“We live in a world of segregation in many ways,” Mr Nicholls said.
“People with disabilities go to special clubs, schools or workplaces, so people don’t have daily contact or interaction. Also, people with a mental illness or someone with an intellectual disability might act in a way that’s unpredictable. This can be confronting”
Although few people report active discrimination, they notice when people stare or get angry when their child makes loud noises or refuses to sit still during the service.
While this is undoubtedly hurtful, it is perhaps easier to address than the well-meaning, covert discrimination faced by many with a disability.
“People with a disability will often say ‘I’m sick of being prayed for’ or ‘I’m sick of people just diving onto my child and saying I’m going to pray for your child. They don’t even ask.’”
Mr Nicholls said the concept of healing and prayer is perhaps the most vexed issue to deal with.
“In some churches there is discomfort when someone who has already been prayed for is still the same. They are thought of as being ‘unhealed’.”
He admits that sometimes the theology of healing can get in the way. People often feel as though they have failed – “I didn’t know whether it was me or them or God. Someone was failing here and my presence made us all feel bad so I had to leave.”
Shane Clifton, Dean of Theology at Alphacrucis College in Sydney, is one of the keynote speakers at this year’s Luke 14 conference. He explained that, like most people, he had minimal interaction with people with a disability, no understanding of the social challenges they face and little appreciation of the contribution they could make to the life of a church.
“This changed dramatically in October 2010 – two weeks before my 40th birthday – when I had an accident that left me a quadriplegic,” Mr Clifton said.
“I spent the next seven months rehabilitating in hospital, learning the skills needed to live with a broken down body.”
Mr Clifton returned home in May 2011. While it has been difficult adjusting to life without participating in the things he loves, such as playing sport and surfing, perhaps the greatest challenge has been redefining his role as a husband and father to three teenage boys.
“So much of family life draws on our physical interactions. It’s sometimes the little things that get me down, like being unable to contribute meaningfully to maintaining the home.”
While family life might present challenges, Mr Clifford said it has also been his greatest source of joy.
“It’s when things go bad that we discover how loving and generous our families and friends are. It’s impossible for me to describe what my wife, kids, parents, brothers (and their families) have done for me – and how much this has brought us all together. I don’t believe bad things always happen for a reason, but I do know that God can bring beauty out of the midst of horror.”
Mr Clifford’s faith has been central to his journey since his accident. He said the prayers, support and encouragement of friends have helped him through even the darkest times to envisage a better future. But his disability has opened his eyes to the many issues churches still face in welcoming people equally.
“The church is not without its faults, largely because it sometimes forgets about the disabled people in its midst.
“There are the obvious problems of access. I’ve been to churches that I couldn’t enter because of steps, gates, and clutter, and to places where I am forced to empty my catheter outside.”
While the physical barriers might be great, they are perhaps the easiest to overcome. Mr Clifford echoes Mr Nicholls when he talks about the issue of healing and faith.
“The biggest difficulty has been that people of faith don’t always know how to respond to permanent sickness and disability.
“I can really feel like the elephant in the room when pastors pray for healing. My faith is not in healing, but in God, who can help me flourish with my disability.”
Mr Clifford is quick to point out that he doesn’t want to be critical of the church and is optimistic about the role it can play in the lives of people with a disability.
“My injury has given me the opportunity to meet many other people with disabilities, and I’ve been enriched by their joy, talents, and friendliness. Welcoming people with disabilities is not charity; it’s about creating church communities that are full of life and to love.”
For information on the Uniting Church’s disability advocacy contact Andy Calder, Disability Inclusion, Commission For Mission: e Andy.Calder@victas.uca.org.au, p 9251 5489