In the village where I was brought up was a sweet shop, which had an Italian proprietor who made the most delicious ice cream. Among Toni’s many talents was sign language. Sometimes, an old man from the village, who could neither hear nor speak, would spend some time with him.
I recall vividly the experience of watching the two of them chattering away with their fingers, each looking at the other with a wonderful smile. But what struck me most was Toni’s facial expression: it was not one of patronising compassion, but of full acceptance of his visitor as a complete person in his own right.
As I ponder the questions about disability, I can think of my own recent experience. I am going through what is probably best described as treatment for post-treatment side effects. I cannot see very well, I cannot eat very well, and I cannot hear very well. I realise it is only a temporary disability, correctly called an impairment.
Yet I now know, for example, how isolating it can be to sit in a room and not hear everything that is going on, and the mutual irritation of repeatedly asking someone with a quiet voice to speak up. It is another form of fragility, which makes me wake up to thoughtless behaviour in the past.
Since my childhood, a revolution has taken place over disability. The Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970 required local authorities to make provision for disabled people in their homes and in public places. Since then, legislation has gradually extended some of these provisions, to the extent that we are all more aware of those in the community with a disability of any kind.
The 1995 Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) made illegal any discriminatory treatment of a disabled person over employment, and the 2005 DDA created a new statutory body to ensure equality, and to promote positive attitudes. Yet it is clear that disabled people still suffer on average from more ill-health, lower expectations in education, and harassment from others.
The Churches have a mixed history over disability. Many of our older buildings are in positions that sometimes make it very difficult — and expensive — to create disabled access. We have also inherited attitudes with a limited definition of what a miracle is, and what healing means — perhaps believing that this means “curing” them, in order to make them “normal”.
This makes us see people with mental or physical disabilities as somehow abnormal. When I was a parish priest, I was sometimes even asked if it was all right for a mentally handicapped person to be confirmed.
Yet there is much to rejoice over as well. In the spirit of modern legislation, access-points are increasingly taken for granted. Diocesan advisers on disability are being appointed, in line with last year’s General Synod debate (Synod, 13 July 2007). There are special church services for schools and organisations promoting the interests of the disabled.
Among the best witnesses to these changes are the disabled clergy themselves, especially when parish representatives have the good sense to see them as complete persons, who have something of their own to contribute to the community.
This makes me realise that, within the Christian tradition, there are seeds for what might be called a “theology of disability”. That is the view of people such as the Revd Bob Shrine, who ministers among the deaf community of Wakefield and Bradford dioceses. “I believe that it is God’s purpose that I am deaf, in order to fulfil the ministry to which he has called me,” he says.
Jesus spent a good deal of his time with the marginalised. This is a challenge to Christians in any age, and to ours, perhaps, to look more critically at our modern notions of normality. It is all too easy to build barriers between individuals and groups if they do not conform to our own stereotypes — whether this is about gender, position in society, how articulate they are, or what religious beliefs they hold.
Once the rest of the community decides to make provision for a minority group of any kind, two things are likely to happen. The first is that the group may well have a collective memory of frustration and resentment at its treatment in the past, even if that just means being ignored.
The second is that the rest of the community needs to move from its own ignorance, through patronising benevolence (“Aren’t we being generous in providing that lavatory for these people?”), to complete acceptance of the group as full members of society in their own right.
The trouble is that many people get stuck at the patronising stage. One way of ensuring that this does not happen is to get the marginalised themselves to be part of the conversation. Baroness Campbell, who chairs the disability committee at the Equality and Human Rights Commission, said in a recent lecture: “Nothing about us without us.”
This is a motto that could with advantage be applied to other more controversial debates as well, such as gays, the ordination of women, and those who are dying every day in the developing world. It is no good having a fine, abstract discussion about the disabled, if they themselves are not there to take part.
Dr Kenneth Stevenson is the Bishop of Portsmouth.