Learning disabilities: ‘If they’re missing, the whole Church is disabled’

15 July 2009

Learning people’s language:Anneliese Barrell speaks in the debate about disabilities

Learning people’s language:Anneliese Barrell speaks in the debate about disabilities

MINISTRY with people with learning disabilities and people on the autistic spec­trum was the subject of a debate on Sunday afternoon. The Synod had guide­lines in a report, Opening the Doors.

Introducing the debate, the Bishop of Blackburn, the Rt Revd Nicholas Reade, described it as “one of those reports that cannot and must not be left on the shelf to gather dust”.

A DVD had set the context for the debate, inviting the Synod and others to see people with learning disabilities as having much to contribute to the life of the Church. The working party had succeeded in producing a clear and practical guide for parishes. When people with disabilities were missing from the Church, the whole Church became disabled.

People were not defined by their intellect, but by society, the report re­cognised. The starting point of the theological rationale for the full in­clusion of people with learning dif­ficul­ties was that every person was made in the image of God and hadthe capacity for relationship with God and with their fellow human beings.

The Bishop had found particularly helpful the section on healing ser­vices, where there was “a clear recog­nition that all of us are incom­plete and in need of healing”. He also com­mended the “Instant AutismDis­ability Checklist” and “Ten quick low-cost things to make a difference”.

Canon Jane Fraser (Worcester) welcomed the guidance of the report. She testified from her own experience of working with young people with learning disabilities, at their own pace, and understanding. She emphas­ised that it was always a two-way learning process.

The Revd Dr Vaughan Roberts (Coventry) found the report outward-looking. It gave a genuine voice to people with learning disabilities and was an aid to evangelism.

The Archdeacon of Dorking, the Ven. Julian Henderson (Guildford), believed the logical basis and practical advice would bring various challenges to the community. He would have liked more tribute to parents and carers, the “unsung heroes”.

Canon Ruth Worsley (Southwell & Nottingham) gave evidence of how well a “rainbow people”, in which every­one participated fully, could work. She commended the marriage section, having prepared a couple with learning difficulties for 18 months. They were “gifted by the Spirit”.

Elnora Mann (London) said that the report was a job well done. She had had the satisfaction of enrolling two new Mothers’ Union members who had learning difficulties, in contrast with the attitudes encoun­tered over a child with learning difficulties whose parents were told, “There have been complaints. . .”

The Bishop in Europe, Dr Geoffrey Rowell, welcomed the sec­tion on funerals. The Churches Funeral Group, which he chaired, was part of the wider constituency that could be addressed here. He com­mended the guidance on not using misleading words such as “passed away” for “died” when dealing with bereaved people with learning dif­ficulties.

Janet Bower (Bradford) was pleased that the report highlighted reciprocity — receiving the gifts of those with learning difficulties. They included slowing down, and taking time and space to consider. She urged all dioceses to put in place a disability adviser.

Anneliese Barrell (Exeter) urged consideration of how to communi­cate with people with learning difficulties — learning their method, body language, and what they were trying to say. It was about learning to listen. She highlighted the problems of siblings, who “often get lost” in family situations.

Philip Ivey-Ray (Chelmsford) in a maiden speech, took exception to a reference to the Brook Advisory Centre in the section on sexual health. He referred to it as an “abortion clinic”, and said that he had campaigned about that with Christian Voice.

The Revd Mark Beach (Coventry) said everyone could benefit if people ceased to be fright­ened by those with learning difficulties.

Janet Atkinson (Durham) urged the involvement of the church in the wider community. Collaboration had been “a wonderful success” in her dio­cese, and money had flowed in to provide purpose-built facilities.

The motion was carried, with one vote against. It read:

That this Synod, in the light of re­newed interest in the challenges facing people with learn­ing dis­abilities in society, commend to dioceses and parishes the guide­lines contained in Opening the Doors (GS 1725) on best practice for the in­clusion of people with learning disabilities in the life and work of the Church.

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