Together We Can Do More: The Church and People with Disabilities

7 December 2016

Older people and people with disabilities gathered in refugee camp for support - John Wabike, Diocese of Western Tanganyika

On the International Day of Persons with Disabilities 2016, the Anglican Alliance’s Relief and Programmes Manager Dr Janice Proud shares on the work of the Church worldwide and what we can do to better promote inclusion:

A key part of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is to leave no-one behind, so it is appropriate that the theme for the 2016 International Day of Persons with Disabilities is, “Achieving 17 goals for the future we want,” focusing on the role of SDGs in building a more inclusive and equal world for people with disabilities.

To achieve this the Church needs to be more deliberate and plan to do this, so that no-one is left behind in its relief and development work. But in fact this applies to all our church activities, so that everyone feels welcome and included in our churches. People with disabilities, like each of us, have gifts to share and needs to be met. Our churches and communities are missing out by not being sensitive to and inclusive of people with disabilities. We are missing out on their gifts and insights.

“The church has been doing very well with women and children,” says Mathilde Umuraza from an umbrella organisation for Disabled Persons Organisations (DPO) in Rwanda, “But we see again that the church does neglect people with disabilities in social programmes.”

Watch the full video of Mathilde here. 

She acknowledges that this may be unintentional, from a lack of knowledge or skills. As Sarah Kasule, Mothers’ Union provincial coordinator for Uganda, said, “The issue of inclusion … It is something that we have talked about before, but then it doesn’t happen, because actually the churches are quite inconvenient to come to for people with disabilities, so somehow when they are not there we don’t think of doing activities that include them.”

Mathilde Umuraza went on to say, “DPO and people with disabilities who are Christians and members of churches, we would like to call the church now to come to us and work with us so can have a new reinterpretation of the bible and the inclusion of people with disabilities in those programmes.”

Reflecting on the workshop, Sarah Kasule, reinforced this, saying, “I discovered that I don’t have to reinvent the wheel – that a lot of organisations are already doing things about disability so there is an opportunity to share resources, things that will help us look at project through an inclusion lens. Like the Council of Anglican Provinces in Africa (CAPA) tool for data collection, we might identify that there are people with disabilities and find that they are not included, that we are missing out on their skills, we don’t benefit as they are not included, and they don’t feel valued.”

Watch the full video of Sarah Kasule here.

The reinterpretation of the bible is a challenge that Mathilde shared with participants of a skills sharing workshop, ‘Churches, Communities and People with Disabilities’, in Rwanda earlier in the year, urging them to take the issue back to their churches for action.

“There is still a gap when you look at the way the church is handling disability,” Mathilde said. “People with disabilities are always lagging behind, and some practices and theological background will restrict people with disabilities from being fully active and involved in church.”

She thinks that there are misinterpretation of some passages of the bible that result in people with disabilities feeling they are not welcome in church and this will be compounding factor for people with disabilities to take a role in the church activities.

And Mathilde said, “We know the bible may also play a redemptive role if many of the other passages that are somehow not interpreted in the right way, are taught and explored with a non-discriminatory point of view. I suggest the bible may become now a tool for uplifting people with disabilities in the church. For that there is a need to read the bible passage and reinterpret those passages which are derogatory and discriminatory with a new eye, as the feminists did. We need to do that with disability.”

Participants of the Great Lakes skills sharing workshop were glad to have the time to reflect together on bible passages and develop bible studies for use in their church community work. They left the workshop with clear plans as to how to share about disability sensitivity and inclusion in their national church development networks and their ongoing work leading relief and development work or church community mobilisation in the region. They felt empowered to ensure that people with disabilities are included in their work, but also knew who to turn to for more in depth training and support in their own countries.

As Leonidas Niyongabo, provincial development officer with the Anglican Church in Burundi, said, “People with disabilities were always included in the relief work if I was aware of them, but now they will be fully included, from the needs assessment stage, through planning, implementation, monitoring and evaluation and also in reporting.  By recording people with disabilities, as well as gender and age, we [using disaggregated data] will help to see the changes, the impact, the added value for people with disabilities, as all are children of God.”

Recent feedback from participants shows that they have taken forward their pledges. Fidele Mushamuka, provincial development officer for DR Congo, reports that he shared about disability at the provincial synod of the Eglise Anglicane du Congo (EAC) held in February in Bunia, which passed a resolution on a strong involvement of the EAC in the SDGs particularly the inclusion of people with disabilities. He is also mapping the situation in different dioceses and working with other organisations.

Through this, in collaboration with The Leprosy Mission Congo (TLM), a hundred religious leaders were sensitized on the fight against leprosy, socioeconomic reintegration of people living with leprosy and people who have recovered from leprosy and challenging the stigmatisation of people with disabilities including people living with leprosy and those who have recovered from leprosy.

It has been so encouraging to hear how the workshop participants have taken forward the issue of disability sensitivity and inclusion into their work.  As Relief and Programmes Manager for the Anglican Alliance, I am also seeing people with disabilities and older people being prioritised for support during emergencies, for example where refugees from Burundi are being supported by the Anglican diocese of Western Tanganyika in Tanzania.

However, we must not forget the challenge from Mathilde: to look at the language we use in church regarding disability. We need to work with theologians to think about how we read the bible in a non-discriminatory way.

As United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said, “Let us work together for the full and equal participation of persons with disabilities in an inclusive and sustainable world that embraces humanity in all its diversity.”