Persons With Disabilities Take Centre Stage at the Third National Conference of Engage Disability 2022
Persons with disabilities led the third national conference of the Engage Disability held from 24-26 November 2022 at Henry Martin Institute, Hyderabad to reflect on the theme “Treasures of the Church: Recognise. Celebrate. Include.”
About 400 delegates came together from all over the country, to listen to the voices of persons with disabilities in the church, and move towards making the church disabled friendly. True to its objective the conference opened a space for persons with disabilities to express their intent to be a visible part of the church and called-on the church to embrace all disabilities.
In all sessions persons with disabilities donned leadership and facilitation roles—something the church or society often does not deem fit.
The worship each day was led by persons with visual impairment and other disabilities like Prof Rajashekar, Mr. Samuel, Ms. Subhashini and others of the Hyderabad hub, an amazing worship leader Ms. Lino Awomi from North East India hub who is also visually impaired, and a group of pastors from the deaf community from the Chennai hub who led the delegates in singing songs through signing.
Through this one-of-a-kind coming together, persons with disabilities raised their voice in unison to be recognised for who they are and not their disabilities. Speaking on this in the inaugural key note the illustrious George Abraham, Member of the Engage Disability Core Group said:
“Expectations drop when someone discovers you have a disability. Empathy is limited, and in the absence of expectation and empathy, empowerment opportunities are few. The non-inclusive ecosystem we live in needs to move towards an ecosystem where people can move around with dignity and confidence. Engagement with people with disabilities are limited to conversations related only to disability and this needs to become prolonged and sustained conversations. All these 5 Es are evident in Church and society, and both struggle to distinguish one’s identity from their disability.”
Rev. Dr. Asir Ebenezer, Chair, Engage Disability, who welcomed the delegates and introduced the conference invited church leaders present to witness, listen, and be challenged by persons with disabilities who took centre stage. The Rt. Rev. Samuel Kennedy, Bishop of Arcot Lutheran Church, challenged the delegates with questions for introspection and repentance asking: “who really is the disabled person? What is ability and what is disability? Our theological understanding of disability is the dangerous reason we wrongly discriminate against disability. This ED is rightly named a ‘movement,’ for movement is related to praxis.”
Rev Dr Packiam T. Samuel, Director Henry Martyn Institute, as the host, welcomed the delegates to the HMI campus and shared that, through the Institute’s engagement with the ED community leading up to this conference, HMI had realised its own limitations and accessibility barriers, and promised to intentionally investigate how those could be addressed.
Responding to the challenging key note, Rev Dr Joshuva Peter, Executive Secretary, United Evangelical Lutheran Churches in India (UELCI), affirmed, “Human resources are available for the inclusion of people with disability in the church,” and that we “forget that we are sitting on gold mines, and that resources are in our own hands and midst,” and admitted that being in this conference was a rare occasion when coming here blesses us amid the worries of the church and he felt blessed simply by being in the company of the treasures of the church. Pastor Theo Steaphens, Gospel Fellowship of India (GFI), responding to the inaugural key note added that “Disability has no religion or faith,” and pointed out how disability becomes a rallying point to cross denominational and faith lines and work together for full and just participation.
The Archbishop Most Rev. Felix Machado, Secretary General, Catholic Bishops Conference of India (CBCI) affirmed his continued solidarity in the work towards making the church especially the Roman Catholic church an inclusive church following the footsteps of the Pope Francis’ encyclical “Fratelli Tutti”
Affirming that “Inclusion is not a destination but a journey” Dr Sara Varghese, CBM India, who facilitated a panel of leaders of ecumenical organisations responding to the inaugural keynote noted that, “even if we have not perfected it, the church has been the pioneer in disability inclusion.”
However, whenever, the church spoke about persons with disabilities it was only the disability that was highlighted and the personhood was often made invisible. The church has preached that all are made in the image of God for centuries. But the church and it’s (un)intentional exclusion of persons with disabilities proved otherwise. As the conference declaration captured,
. . . it is clear from the stories we have heard at this conference that the Church has not always recognised these gifts and has instead seen people with disability as an object of charity. Whilst we acknowledge that providing care for the additional needs of those with disability is important, it still falls short of a Christlike response. We have been slow to recognise and celebrate the full God given treasure that each person brings to the Church.
Another key note speaker Paul Balasundaram underlined that, “The idea of the image of God is the demonstration that God calls us to embrace and delight in difference,” and that it is “Through life-giving relationships across difference, human beings ‘image’ god to one another.” The Conference also witnessed, probably for the first time in ecumenical history in India, keynote speakers Pastor Anuj Jain and Pastor Sanjay Taneja, who signed their keynote addresses and sign interpreters translated from sign to voice for the conference delegates to listen, thus showcasing yet another way to be inclusive in our events as a Christian community in India and the Church.
A panel of speakers reiterated that the gap between theology and practice is (and can be) bridged by lived experience or personal experience, and towards this end, called on delegates to accompany and form friendships and relationships with our disabled friends—the treasures of the Church.
The binarized perception of “disabled and “abled” has marred the vision of the church and prevented us from celebrating these wonderful treasures.
From centre stage, each person who was disabled made a mark in the hearts of the many church leaders and ecumenical leaders who were present over the three days of the conference, moving them to recognising persons first and disabilities next.
These “treasures of the church” challenged all present to view disability as part of diversity and difference, and affirmed that persons were more important than the disability.
In the conference church-leaders, leaders of faith-based organisations and others affirmed in one-voice to renounce any practices of discrimination on persons with disabilities and steer the Christian community in India as a model for an inclusive people of God for the world to see.
This affirmation echoed in the conference declaration,
. . . we as the Engage Disability movement commit to recognising this treasure. We commit to celebrating this treasure. Finally, we commit to ensuring all people, and their treasures, are included in the mission and ministry of the Church.
While facilitating sessions, persons with disabilities made it crystal clear to the 400 delegates including seventy volunteers, care-givers, disability-rights activists, pastors, theologians, church leaders, advocates, social entrepreneurs, and institutional heads, that “prayers for healing was not the only resort, but physical and transparent inclusion into the body of Christ is what we need.” They called the church to move from its state of sympathy and apathy, towards empathy and accompaniment as the way forward toward inclusion.
The three-day conference showcased varied experiences and models, laid bare theological questions and left much on the table for all present to process.
However, the delegates left the venue in one voice declaring that persons with disabilities are indeed the treasures of the church:
We commit to working with those who experience Church as socially or physically inaccessible to make sure we are all recognised, celebrated and included. Our common reflection of God’s image demands that we do!
The conference wrapped up, affirming to wheel-chair ourselves towards a church that is ramped for inclusion and railed for justice, leaving braille marks and newly learnt words in sign language in hearts of many, and motivating all to make the world disabled-friendly and disabled welcoming.
Through the efforts of the Hyderabad hub who donned the responsibilities of the Local Organising Committee, the ED NC 2022 was blessed with team of about 65 young volunteers drawn from the churches and Christian agencies of Hyderabad and Chittoor who were the backbones of the conference, along with the ED NC 2022 Conference Secretariat Team drawn from ED Network partners like National Council of Churches in India, NCCI, Emmanuel Hospital Association, EHA, ProVISION Asia, and ED associates.
This Third National Conference would not have been possible without the many named and unnamed volunteers, well-wishers, and partners whom God raised from across this country and beyond. We are thankful for this miraculous and mighty gathering God enabled and which was indeed marvellous in our eyes and that is bound to have an impact in years to come!
Report prepared by
Vinod Shemron. S & Jessica Richard
Documentation Team, EDNC 2022