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Biblical principles for responding to disability

Biblical principles for responding to disability

The Revd Judi McGaffin outlines five biblical principles for considering the needs of people with disabilities, and the Disability Working Group’s call for best practice ideas for caring for people living with dementia.

I have been involved in working with and for people with various disabilities for most of my life and so when the disability legislation came into being, I was delighted. People with any disability would have to be given the same opportunity for access as anyone without a disability. Reasonable adjustments would have to be made and so I felt that inclusion would be promoted. 

The Church of Ireland in parishes all over the island took on the challenge and now an increasing number of churches are accessible physically to people with a disability. We have made progress but still have some way to go if we are to be fully inclusive to people with various disabilities, including people with ‘hidden disabilities’. And most of the work is about changing attitudes, not just about compliance with legislation. 

When we in parishes or at diocesan level begin to consider people with any disability (and other issues too), the place that we should start is with God and biblical principles:

Being made in the image of God: Everyone without exception being made in the image of God conveys dynamic loving relationships, where everyone needs everyone else to be fully functional. “We all bear one another’s burdens in order to fulfil the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2). We are all called to be an inclusive community.

Community in the Body of Christ: All people are needed to make up the fully functioning body of Christ, and we are told that the parts that seem to be weaker are indispensable (1 Corinthians 12:22). When people are missing, the Christian community itself becomes disabled.

Inclusion: Active intervention and recognition that everyone has a worth and should be treated with compassion is at the heart of the Gospel.

Love and friendship: The love that Jesus showed in his ministry was inclusive, compassionate, practical and persistent, but never patronising or oppressive – it gives others space to be and to grow.

Justice: Jesus also calls on the powerful to take on the needs of the helpless.

These and the recognition of the contribution of all people are all cornerstones of our Christian faith and lives.

The Church, locally and nationally, should be at the heart of altering attitudes, not just ensuring that legislation is adhered to, so that the Christian value of inclusion for all is achieved, and justice prevails.

We all need to be passionate about ensuring that these principles are carried through to action in a systematic and sustainable way in local churches and parishes. Where there are barriers to inclusion, we need to work to overcome these.  Where we need policies at every level, let us produce them and make them work.  We all need to be intentional and pro–active and meet people at their point of need and show them, as Christ did, that they are precious in his sight and in ours.

This year for Disability Sunday (20th November), we seek to highlight, in particular, the difficulties encountered by those living with dementia and their carers.  The Working Group on Disability wishes to highlight best practice from a parish point of view as we include those living with dementia in the family of the Church.  So we ask that you would let us know how you are seeking to care for those with dementia either physically in church, spiritually or pastorally.  This best practice will be offered to others as a helpful way to embrace those suffering from dementia in our communities.  Suggestions should be forwarded by Friday, 20th January, to dementiabestpractice@ireland.anglican.org and a prize will be available for the best proposal.

The Revd Judi McGaffin is Priest–in–Charge of Fahan Upper and Lower, Diocese of Raphoe, and a member of the Working Group on Disability. This article was first published in the Church of Ireland Gazette on 15th November 2016.