The atmosphere in Kiran Village*, Madhopur, near Varanasi is amazing. The formally barren landscape is covered with trees and purpose-built buildings and the little paths are busy with boys and girls and young men and women on crutches, with wheelchairs or just plain wobbly, making their way from the gate to their class-rooms, the production units or the therapy rooms. Just a half a mile down the road is the Ganga, flowing slowly and low at this time of the year and with broad, sandy banks.
I had met Promila Charan some years before, she works in Kiran Village as the PA to the Director. The last time I saw her was a few days before she was flying off to Europe. I was longing to find out how she enjoyed the trip and also to know more about her life as a Christian professional with disabilities. Long after the children and staff had gone home Promila directed her wheelchair into the guest house, transferred herself to a more comfortable chair and we began to talk.
Quite soon into our conversation Promila said
“Read the Bible and see for yourself Jesus came for the weak and poor. Even if we have disabilities we are part of the church. We all have a purpose.”
Of course she is right but she also added
“Pastors don’t really know how to care for us, how to be with us”
It was something I had heard from the wife of another person with disabilities who told me that the new minister in the church seemed to patronise her husband and did not seem to know how to behave with him.
So what is happening here? I would like to suggest that Church ministers, like many other people in larger society, haven’t a clue about disability. They are unsure what it means to be a person in a wheelchair, or someone who is visually or hearing impaired and it is hugely puzzling to know how to be with someone who has the odd movements of a person with cerebral palsy or idiosyncrasies of autism. Yet we need our pastors to be able to serve the whole Christian community whether they have disabilities or not.
Engage Disability has produced a Disability Inclusion Toolkit packed with sensible suggestions and explanations on how church can respond to disability. If anyone reading this would like to know more about training to make your church more responsive to disability then please send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org
A good approach might be to emulate the attitude of Promila’s parents. Promila is the last of several children. Her father was a highly educated freedom fighter and much respected in general society; he loved his youngest daughter dearly and always encouraged her to try things “you can do it” was something both her parents told her often. So it was that she went on to do a Masters degree in Economics, the only girl with disabilities out of 500 in her year. In my blog last week I mentioned that George Abraham was also set in the right direction by parents who never held him back but allowed him out on a bike and kept him in normal school, collaborating with the teachers for his wellbeing.
For church leaders, the example of these parents, matching as it does Jesus’ attitude, is a fine model to follow. A great place to start in improving your response to people with disabilities is to treat them as you would other members of the congregation. If you do not usually patronise members of your congregation then you do not need to do so to one in a wheelchair. People with disabilities have fears and doubts and worries just as everyone else and they need the love and support of church members and leaders too. They have spiritual needs to be addressed and may have a heart to serve the congregation and gifts that church leaders need to learn about. And finally, as people with disabilities they may have particular concerns that they would be glad to share with church leaders for prayer and support; they will not feel able to share if they are not welcomed in the same way as everyone else.
Promila said that she had heard about a job in Kiran from a member of her church, someone kind enough to think of sharing the opportunity which has changed her life. George met his wife first at Sunday school and later they hung out with a crowd of young Christians at university.
Both George and now Promila, have attributed their successes in life to parents who encouraged them. A lesson there for church leaders too. Find out the challenges and then be an encouragement. A few words here, the knowledge that they are prayed for, news of an opportunity, and a chance to serve in church are all practical encouragements.
We might also give a thought to parents and family members living with disability. Promila told me that one of her regrets was that both parents died before she started work in Kiran. She knew they would have been pleased for her. Congregation members and church leaders must take the time to support parents of children with disabilities. They have all the usual fears and worries of parents plus a few extra as they wonder about care-giving after they grow old or die and as they try and juggle the needs of children with and without disabilities (it is not at all easy to be the sibling of a person with disability).
It is recorded in Luke 14:15-24 that Jesus said
“Bring in everyone who is poor or crippled or blind or lame”
Crippled and lame are not the sort of words we use now because people with disabilities have asked us not to, but the message is clear, the kingdom of God is for all and when we miss out those living with disability we are being disobedient.
Promila did eventually get around to telling me that she had the most wonderful six weeks in Europe. She visited Switzerland, Italy and Ireland, stayed in people’s homes and spoke in churches. She could travel in public buses because they are designed to receive wheelchairs. When she returned to India she found herself thinking
“When will we make public places accessible in India?”
A great question really. Would Promila be able to speak in your church or is it inaccessible for someone in a wheelchair or using using crutches? ….. but that is for another blog post.
*Kiran village is the location for Kiran-Society a Centre for Inclusive Rehabilitation Click here to know more