Braille Scripture at Work

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One Sunday a while back I was lazing in one of the soft, roomy, easy chairs in the flat I rent here in Delhi when my phone rang.  It was Alamelu a friend who is an Assistant Professor at a college for women here in Delhi.  She said she was nearby with her husband and asked could we meet up. It was an easy question and I was soon hurrying off to meet them at gate number two of Green Park Metro station.

Alamelu and her husband Annavaram are new friends, people I met last year at a conference especially called to review how much progress was being made in a movement called Engage Disability which is striving to improve the response of church in India to disability.  They stood out at that conference because they walked everywhere hand in hand, then gradually it became apparent that they are a delightful couple with a love for the Lord who has touched their lives in rather special ways.

Annavaram and Alamelu are blind.  She can see a little but Annavaram nothing at all, yet as a team holding hands, they are able to move around confidently even in an unknown conference venue. I was to meet them both again a few months later at an academic conference arranged by Annavaram in his role as an Assistant Professor at a leading central university.  Now he was in Delhi for a visit and I was rushing off to bring them home.

We agreed to walk home from the station which proved to be a good lesson for me. I must have walked those gullies a thousand times but never before had I noticed how many obstacles there are if you cannot see.  With a good deal of “keep left” and “look out for the bollard” and “be careful here the footpath becomes rubble” and at one point a quick bend to move a plastic bottle out of the way, we arrived home and I experienced the joy of introducing my new friends to the family with whom I live.

But really what I wanted to share was something of what we talked about and most especially something Annavaram told me had deeply affected his life as a boy.

 Alamelu is happy to admit that if it were not for being visually impaired she would probably not have received any education at all.  In the small village where she was born there was precious little money and usually girls would be married early without going to school because of the cost involved. A relative told her parents about a school in Chennai especially for girls who were blind and he took her and got her admitted.  Alamelu is from Telugu speaking Chittor district in Andhra Pradesh so at first she struggled with Tamil but in the end she learned and would go on to become fluent in Tamil and English and able to read both in Braille.  Perhaps she would not have become a Christian either but for her blindness, her family is Hindu but her special school was Christian and she grew up learning about the Lord and in recent times took baptism.

Annavaram’s story was a little different; he joined school late and when he started at a Christian-run special school for the blind and learned Braille his world opened up in the most marvellous way.  He was just a boy but he was troubled with notions of God in an imperfect world and what on earth was the purpose for his life as a blind child.  Between lobbying for better food for the hostel boys, Annavaram discovered the wonders of the Bible in Braille.  And then he found John 9 and the story where the disciples asked Jesus who had sinned, the man born blind or his parents.  Jesus replied that neither had sinned

“but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.” John 9:3

Annavaram told us, that Jesus’ reply to the disciples was a reply to his own question about what the purpose of his life could be.  It was immediately obvious that what is required of him is to use his life to give Glory to God.

Do you understand?  It is not a fickle God who makes one to see and another to be blind, one to hear and another to be deaf, one to walk and run and dance and another to never be able to even stand.  Each one of us is unique and each has a purpose to live life to His glory.  Many of us will never hear that truth as clearly as Annavaram did and that is not a mistake, Annavaram was looking for answers and The Lord put scripture into his hands and a means to read it. In our times too Jesus speaks to each one of us, those with disabilities as much as to any other.

Alamelu and Annavaram are faithful Christians on their journey through life. He often preaches and both exhibited a depth of knowledge and love for scripture at sessions they shared at the Engage Disability conference.  To watch Alamelu pass her hands gently across the pages of her Braille addition of the gospels and hear the reverence in her voice as she reads aloud is a miracle and a joy.  I am so glad that they have both brought  to me a fresh view of life and the wondrous work of God in his children.

Braille takes up a lot of space on the page so each book of the Bible is printed separately.  Alamelu and Annavaram’s Braille Bibles were sent free of cost to them, book by book over a period of time, by Lutheran Braille Workers 

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“They Don’t Know How To Be With Us”

DSCN0105The 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 sylvia.engagedisability@gmail.com

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 

Angels can change tyres too

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Statistics for the number of vehicles in Delhi are staggeringly, somewhere in the region of 8 million.  Now if you have ever been caught in a jam it sometimes seems as if at least half of those cars and motorbikes are somewhere between you and where you want to go.  Often, on my way to work I see people gently pushing parked cars one a little this way and the one in front a little that way until the double parked cars inside can be manoeuvred out.   This mass of vehicles, causing traffic jams and parking nightmares are a terrible nuisance but for some they can be life changing.

Researching for this blog I was privileged to meet Mr. Inderjit lal here in Delhi.  He was affected by measles as a child of about eight and was left paralysed with no sensation below the waist.

“There was no measles vaccine in those days and what happened to me was anyway very rare. I was bed-ridden for six months after which the sensation gradually began to return.   I had the support of a marvellous doctor and physiotherapist who never lost hope. Dr Bhanu Shankar later went on to be Director General of Health Services to The Government of India and it was he who told me when I was 18 that I should get a driving licence when everyone else was saying I was off my rocker to even try. I feel God has been very good to me, sending me such committed people.”

“As a young man I was able to climb two flights of stairs and as long as I could drive I could get to most places. I worked in tourism for 25 years and used to drive a normal car.   About 40 years ago I asked the Lord to help me and be with me on any venture and I have felt his presence, so I was as confident as the next person about getting around.”

“Years ago when our children were only about 1 and 3 years old we were piled in the car late one winter evening coming back from celebrating a birthday.  I was driving and just before the Kidwai Nagar and AAIMS junction (that was in the days before the flyovers) we got a flat tyre.  I could drive but I could not change a tyre and so there we were, Rita, me and two little ones in the cold and dark with no one around. Suddenly out of the gloom comes a young man whom we did not recognise but who declared that he knew us. It seems he was the son of a former servant and he was willing and able to change the tyre and send us on our way.  We know that was God’s good grace and was the reason why I had such confidence in spite of the limitations caused by the disability.”

“I made sure my children could drive and stopped driving myself a few years ago mostly because now there are so many more cars and it is almost impossible to park close to places that I need to visit and I cannot walk far.”

It doesn’t sound much really does it? But giving up driving has narrowed Inderjit’s world and increased his dependence on others.

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Of course in a city like Delhi it is perhaps madness to consider the luxury of reserved parking for people with disabilities.  I did see a “disability parking” sign outside a row of shops on Aurobindo Marg recently but somehow I can’t imagine it is reserved only for people with disabilities.  Lots of congregations across India meet not in special church buildings but in schools and public auditorium so my conversation with Inderjit got me thinking that it would be fairly easy to make a portable “disability parking” sign and have a young church member set it up each week to keep parking spaces close to the meeting place especially for people with disabilities. Of course for those mainline churches that have their own parking it is would be a simple matter to rule up special parking places close to the church entrance and the nearest ramp into the building.  Ah but ramps are for another blog post!

I would like to thank Inderjit Lal and his wife Rita for sharing so freely with me their journey as Christians living with disability. I remain deeply impressed and am sure you will be hearing more about them in future blogs