Fighting discrimination is in our DNA


Friday Forum

Rev (Deacon) Andy Calder

Forty years from our birth as the Uniting Church, the Basis of Union still reminds us that mission is nothing less than the reconciliation and renewal of the whole creation (Paragraph 3).

The Church is called to serve that end and continue the ministry of Jesus in word and deed. Our ‘DNA’ – the essence of what makes us who we are as church – is disturbed by actions and policies that perpetuate division and derision.

Such divisiveness can be based on gender, wealth, employment, heritage, language or ability, to name a few. Derision of individuals or groups who don’t conform to mainstream expectations of behavioural or financial contribution can take the form of such language as ‘leaners and lifters’.

Our Church’s DNA is also disturbed by actions or inactions which contribute to vulnerable people experiencing stigma and exclusion.

Sometimes faith communities and community service agencies turn out not to be places of welcome and sanctuary. We should be willing to speak up whenever and wherever any form of abuse or discrimination takes place.

Australia’s first Disability Discrimination Commissioner , Elizabeth Hastings, was appointed in 1992 . Ms Hastings lived with the effects of polio and understood the stigma faced by people living with a disability.

In 1957, her migration to Australia under the ‘Ten-pound Pom Scheme’ was initially refused by the Australian government because of the effects of polio. Her father appealed to the then immigration minister Harold Holt, and eight-year-old Elizabeth was granted entry with the rest of her family, but only if they paid full fare.

In her role as Commissioner, Ms Hastings had carriage of the federal Disability Discrimination Act 1991 (the DDA). The Act enshrines protection of people with disabilities from abuse and discrimination, both direct and indirect, from the provision of goods, services and facilities.

Ms Hastings went on to become the synod’s manager of Justice and Social Responsibility Unit, a role she held until her death in 1998.

The Synod of Victoria and Tasmania, in its Disability Action Plans has committed itself to the principles and legislation contained within the DDA. These Plans seek to counter attitudinal and physical barriers which exclude, as well as affirming theological positions which challenge the cult of normalcy and perceptions of the need for healing.

While affirming the need for intentional Action Plans, Ms Hastings critiqued the need for terms such as ‘inclusion’ – because all people are included according to God’s grace. She also said tongue-in-cheek, that it might have been a whole lot better if Jesus had not performed quite so many miracles but let people be as they had been created and let them get on with their lives!

While we continue to examine and critique our own practices, the past weeks and months have witnessed events in the public arena which run counter to the principles of the DDA and to the Uniting’s Church’s DNA of justice and compassion.

Abuse (physical, sexual) of people with disabilities can never be tolerated. Its pernicious reach has become so widespread that current safeguards and protocols need serious examination and correction to ensure such abuse is eliminated. The national Uniting Church Disability Working Group supports the call for the federal government to act urgently to ensure all people, including those in receipt of the NDIS, are protected by the highest of standards.

Uniting Church DNA means we should closely scrutinise a proposal by another worshipping community in South Australia which is seeking an exemption under the DDA to limit or exclude people with mental health issues from attending worship, on the grounds that certain behaviours are ‘disruptive to sacred activities’.

How many other exemptions might be sought if this was granted? How does this stack up with Jesus’ embrace of the outsider and that in ‘welcoming a stranger it might just be that an angel is encountered’?

The recent uproar following Pauline Hanson’s call for students with autism be separated from mainstream classes also plays into division and perpetuates the mentality of ‘winners and losers’, ‘them and us’: fear of difference, fear of the other.

Much has been gained in recent decades by policies that dedicate resources (never enough) to provide education and social connectedness in ways that enhance understanding and acceptance.

Uniting Church DNA compels us to speak out when we see the gains of the past decades under threat through ignorance and fear.

On this week’s Friday Forum: What should the Church do to make sure that our society is truly inclusive?

Rev Andy Calder is the synod’s disability inclusion officer. 

Image: Anjan58/Flickr

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