The National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) must acknowledge the importance of spirituality if it is to foster the “entire range of human capabilities”, a conference organised by the Uniting Church heard this week.
Approximately 150 people from around Australia and from overseas have attended the three-day Exclusion and Embrace: Disability, Justice and Spirituality conference, which has been chiefly organised by Uniting Church minister and synod disability inclusion officer Rev Andy Calder.
The conference, which finishes on Tuesday, is staging 40 seminars over three days at the Jasper Hotel in central Melbourne on disability and spirituality with keynote speeches delivered by international experts in those fields, including Bill Gaventa from the US and Hans Reinders from Holland.
The keynote speaker after lunch on day two was Flinders University Associate Professor Lorna Hallahan, who acts as a chief investigator in the evaluation of the NDIS.
The NDIS is currently being rolled out nationwide and provides cash for people with disabilities to spend on competing care providers.
In her talk, Not simply a functional issue: spirituality considered in the NDIS?, Dr Hallahan drew on her own experience of having her leg amputated to stop the spread of cancer.
Dr Hallahan said the institutional rehabilitation she received focussed too narrowly on getting her walking on the prosthetic limb.
However, what she had needed was help understanding how her life story had changed, and a quick return to the relational home and work environment where she could make sense of what had happened to her.
“Disability services got in the way of my life,” Dr Hallahan said.
Dr Hallahan said the NDIS could have a narrow or “thin” focus on merely equipping people to achieve a functional equivalence, which she described as the“low road”.
She advocated that a preferable “high road” approach would take into account spirituality, broadly defined in a holistic and relational sense as “a way of being in the world”.
Dr Hallahan said the research that had been done on the quality of life sought by people with a disability pointed to the yearning for a spiritual dimension.
“The moment you enter into qualitative research, this leaps out. It’s there,” she said.
Uniting Church member and former synod disability worker Susan Stork-Finlay co-hosted a follow-up session on Dr Hallahan’s presentation.
Ms Stork-Finlay is also presenting a session on day three entitled: Accepting us as we are: Disability, impairment and illness within faith communities and societies.
She said the idea that humans were created in the image of God is common across a number of faiths but it had potential negative ramifications for people with a disability.
“Our perception that God’s image is of a perfect human being is flawed,” Ms Stork-Finlay said.
“So if you think how God created a tree, not every tree looks the same. So not every person looks the same –whether someone is born with impairment or is born with four arms and legs or only has three limbs, they are still in God’s image. God is there in any person.”
Ms Stork-Finlay said the Uniting Church still had to grapple with the issue that a growing number of people who were experiencing a disability that inhibited their worship and fellowship activities.
“The Uniting Church has been working in this field for a long time, it’s got a long history but it’s still got a very, very long way to go and it’s not just down to individual congregations. It’s the responsibility of congregations, presbyteries, synods and assemblies to keep working on this,” she said.
“We’re talking about 20 per cent of the reported population with a major disability plus more people with chronic illness and mental health.
“Add in ageing and all that type of stuff, and you’re talking about the majority of the population who would be living with barriers to participating in congregational life and worship in some way.
“Not everyone hears and reads and listens to the extent that is expected in the way that we traditionally hold Uniting Church worship on a Sunday morning and are able to comprehend and participate in that style of worship.
“We need to be more inclusive in how we do things, we need to rethink.”