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www.mn.catholic.org.au Catholic Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle
NO SEPARATE CHURCH FOR
PERSONS WITH DISABILITIES
The ser vices that a compassionate society
provides for its citizens with disabilities have
received a great deal of media attention in
recent months. Aurora invited Ros Wetzler
to share her ideas on how church and other
communities might respond practically to the
isolation that often accompanies disability.
You might ask, -- how do we break down
bar riers and open doors to create an
inclusive society for all? Can't we just
install r amps and disabled parking spaces,
disability-friendly signs and the welcome-
What are the bar riers, and which door s do
we open? Do Christian communities have
something to offer?
Approximately 20 % of people in our
society live with some form of disability
-- physical, cognitive, sensory or social. In
fact, most of us will experience issues of
impairment at some point.
"Disability refers not only to the
impair ments that restrict or limit a per son
in comparison to others, but also the
bar riers in the environment that contribute
to these restrictions. These barriers include
not only steps without ramps, but negative
attitudes as well." (Church Bar None, CBM
Some would say we live in an ableist
society; that we value ableism -- where
the capably functioning body and mind are
viewed as the norm, and any thing different
is a lesser state of being human -- seen as
faulty, deviant, pathological.
This forms a foundation for beliefs and
attitudes which we imbibe imperceptibly.
When someone looks or speaks or acts
differently from us, we ask 'what is wrong
with them? ' We fear that we may not
understand, we may not be able to relate,
or to make them be like us -- 'nor mal'.
The first barrier I often hear people
ar ticulate -- that keeps them from reaching
out and welcoming, from engaging and
relating, from listening and sharing -- is fear.
Perhaps brokenness, vulnerability,
dependency are too confronting to face --
in other s? In ourselves?
Or can we recognise the God-given beauty,
value and giftedness in diversity? We
might, if we are pr epared to 'break the
barrier' and spend time with those whose
'able-ness', though different, might have the
capacity to reveal to us their riches, and
reflect to us our own vulnerability.
As Christian communities, who are we?
A comfor table club of like-minded people
not dissimilar to our selves? We know
who really 'fits' and who doesn't. Are
our communities places where we don't
challenge each other's masks; where we
hide from the pain, weaknesses, inhibitions
behind our efficiency and independence?
American professor, Wolf Wolfensberger,
challenged the segregating attitudes of
western society around disability during
the latter decades of the 20th centur y. A
deeply committed Catholic, he recognised
that even Christian communities str uggle
to embr ace true community, where we
create space for the brokenness, diversity
and gifts of others and give each other
per mission to be on a spiritual jour ney
together, not alone.
Wolfensberger was renowned for
squeezing as much meaning as possible into
a compound word or title to a scholarly
paper. Wolfensberger's title is "The
Nor mative Lack of Christian Communality
in Local Congregations as the Centr al
Obstacle to a Proper Relationship with
Surely not ! Is Wolf saying the root of
the problem of people with disabilities
not being truly included in our Christian
communities lies with us and our
customar y lack of true 'hospitality', and not
primarily in the 'disabling conditions of the
Henri Nouwen defines tr ue Christian
hospitality as, "the cr eation of a free and
friendly space where we can reach out to
stranger s and invite them to become our
Of course the 'space' Henri refers to is not
only a physical space, but a space in our
hear ts, our time, our open ar ms, our lives.
It is respectful and r esponsible to increa se
our understanding of disabling issues and
of practical bar riers that can be addressed.
But equally, we can deter mine to consider
our attitudinal bar riers to inclusion, and
examine our prejudices and phobia s. It is
said, "The best way to overcome a poor
attitude is to get to know a person with a
disability! " (SCOPE Victoria).
Welcoming a per son with a disability
into our per sonal or congregational
space doesn't usually cost much in ter ms
of money or resources, but it cer tainly
r equires of us more than a mere 'Day of
Per sons with Disabilities' -- rather a life
investment in attitudinal shift, perhaps
a learning cur ve, a willingness to move
beyond our comfor t zones -- initially
anyway. The two -way street of relationship,
mutual sharing of gifts and faith, celebrating
the fullness of diversity, can be enriching
beyond measure for all of us.
The opening Statement from the US
Catholic Bishops' Framework of Access
and Inclusion (1995) affirms clearly and
exquisitely: "We are a single flock under
the care of a single shepherd. There can
be no separate Church for persons with
Church Bar None -- a Bible Study course on
disability. CBM Austr alia ; Luke14 -- Disability
Inclusive Christian Communities, 2009. P & L
The Theological Voice of Wolf Wolfensberger,
Gaventa and Coulter (Eds) 2001.
McNair, J. The church and disability, 2010.
SCOPE : for People with a disability.
Welcome and Justice for Per sons with Disabilities: A
Framework of Access and Inclusion. A Statement of
the US Catholic Bishops. www.usccb.org (1998).
Roslyn Wetzler is Regional Co-ordinator
of CBM Luke 14, promoting and resourcing
Australian churches for disability inclusion,
www.luke14.cbm.org.au and Project
Co-ordinator, Hunter Friends of L'Arche,
bringing together people with and without
intellectual disabilities in community and
BY ROS WETZLER
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