Disabled people can make distinctive contributions to society. A distraught mother of a boy with severe learning difficulties was surprised when her doctor chided her 'You think this child is all your own responsibility, don't you? He isn't. He is society's responsibility. Society needs handicap." (1)
A friend at a church in Kampala asked me to take him to the local deaf school so that he could 'pray for the children's ears to be opened'. This approach was based on Jesus' healing ministry - 'the blind receive sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear'.(2)
Jesus' miracles need not be interpreted as showing us that a cure is the-only way of healing-disablity.-The miracles-were to -show that 'the power of God is such that God can change what humanity sees as unchangeable.(3)
While some disabled people would no doubt prefer not to be disabled, many more would vigorously defend their disability as part of their identity or even as a gift. Geoff Lay, a blind parish priest in the Diocese of Ely, describes how he uses his visual impairment to tell others about God's grace . God's power is manifest in weakness just as much as it is in the miraculous cure, as Paul discovered'.
What should our attitude be to disabled people?
We used to see disabled people as lacking something. The solution was to 'normalise' them, usually through medical intervention. Now disabled people are arguing that it is not they but society who should be changed. They need fewer 'special' services and more inclusive services such as integrated schools and independent living schemes. In Uganda, disabled people have obtained representation at local government level and in Parliament to ensure that their voice is heard.
The attitude that disabled people need continual care makes,, them objects of charity. It also treats the symptoms of disability but not the causes such as poverty, war and social inequality.
Jesus began his mission with his claim to secure freedom for the oppressed in society. 'He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour.(6)' Jesus called for an inclusive society which does not discriminate but offers equal opportunities to all.
The needs of the disabled are less to do with welfare and more concerned with removing the barriers in society which oppress them: inaccessible environments, 'lack of communication, prejudice and discrimination. Our response should be one of equalising opportunities rather than providing palliative care and sympathy.
Community based rehabilitation
In some developing countries disabled people are now served not by institution-based but by 'community-based rehabilitation'. This should be multisectoral and include education, vocational training, income generation, housing etc, alongside healthcare. Disabled people should be active in its planning and --implementation. This way they gain in responsibility and grow in self esteem.
Throughout Uganda they have formed self help groups which run . income-generating activities such as cobbling, tailoring or rearing livestock. In Kabale, southwest Uganda, they run their own orthopaedic workshop to provide the appliances they need.
'Society needs handicap.' Disabled people are often seen begging outside churches in Africa. The church should welcome them, see what they have to offer, and support programmes such as community based rehabilitation which empower them.
Steven Harknett has just gained an MSc (with distinction) in Community Disability Studies in Developing Countries, partly funded by an MMA grant. He expects to return to work with the Uganda National Institute of Special Education