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It’s time to foster communities of belonging

17 February 2017

The needs of people with disabilities are more than physical, says Paul Vallely

THE Spartans were not the only hard men of the ancient world. They may have left their crippled babies out on the hillside to die; but, in Athens, Aristotle advocated infanticide for disabled new­borns. In Rome, Cicero took a similar line.

In the Bible, by contrast, the Psalmist speaks of God as knowing each of us, even as we were knitted together inside our mother’s womb (Psalm 139.13). The notion that every life is a gift of God dominates the think­ing of many in the contemporary debate over abortion. And yet once a child is born, the premise changes. Many in the Church shift unconsciously to the Graeco-Roman world-view. We may not advocate actual infanticide, but our implicit assumption is that disability is a problem.

Cristina Gangemi is striving to change that default supposition. She runs the Kairos Forum, which seeks “to foster communities of belonging” for people with all kinds of disab­ilities. It focuses on the spiritual rather than the physical.

Ms Gangemi tells a moving story of a woman, June, who had given birth to a child she named Martin, whose disabilities included Tourette’s syndrome. In church, she asked God time and again why he had done this to her. One Sunday, after the boy had shouted wildly during the service, another parishioner said: “You should be ashamed of yourself, bringing a child like that to mass.” June left, and never returned.

Years later, Martin was being particularly disruptive at home, raving that his feet were dirty. June fetched a bowl and a towel to bathe them. The process dramatically pacified the child. As she was bending down, with the towel over her shoulder, and her eyes on the feet she was stroking soothingly, she heard her son say: “Do you love me?”

She could not look up, fearful of seeing the face of Christ. The next day, she took the boy to church, where he later became an altar server and a church stalwart for the rest of his life.

In England today, more than a million people live with disabilities without social care, the charity Leonard Cheshire Disability states. Nearly £28 billion has been cut from social-security budgets over the past six years, and almost half the disabled people who say that they need support are not receiving any. Some have lost wheelchairs and adapted cars; some must go to bed at 6 or 7 p.m. because that is the only care-slot available. Others are forced to use incontin­ence pads because there is no one to help them to get to the lavatory.

When sick people come to Jesus in the Gospels, Ms Gangemi says, he does not auto­matically heal them: often, he first asks them what it is that they want. Their needs are usually more than physical: they are for acceptance, inclusion, or forgiveness. They want to be part of “us” rather than always being seen as “them”.

As a society, we are not asking the right questions about people who are disabled. It is why we are not getting the right answers.

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