This blog entry was originally posted by Fr Keith Hebden when he was our Associate Priest
This week we started a four-week course called “Welcoming Disability” based on the book by Inclusive Church called “Disability”. We met in 3 different groups, locations and times with a total of 22 people involved. Each week we hear a story about a disabled Christian and reflect on what we hear and then we read something from the bible and see if we can connect up the two in a way that leads to real change.
Generally our habit is to go around the group with a question. In the first week it was, “Why does disability matter to you, personally?” Among the stories of experiences of personal frustrations or failings one of the themes that emerged from that question was one of accidental exclusion of a disabled person by an individual or group: The “Does she take sugar?” syndrome.
In our first week we heard about Susan who has epilepsy. She writes:
My biggest problem with epilepsy is other people. I don’t lose consciousness. I don’t need medical attention when having a seizure. My arms jerk and my head jerks and my voice gets louder and sometimes I bark like a seal. I look weird.
People seem to think I can control what is happening to me. They often shout in my face or make fun of me. I’ve been dragged out of a building and thrown onto the street by the security guard to whom I went for help in finding a quiet place to sit. I didn’t fit the only type of seizure he knew about.
She goes on to tell about how a well-meaning person excluded her from helping out at an event because they decided that her disability meant she couldn’t join in. The person may or may not have been correct but the feeling of powerlessness that Susan felt when that decision was taken off her came across strongly to our groups.
The bible reading we used for this was from Matthew’s Gospel. A gospel being a (sort of) biography of Jesus’ mission. It’s short so here it is in full:
Jesus heals the epileptic (Matthew 17: 14-21)
One of the crowed came up to Jesus, knelt before him and said, “Teacher, have pity on my child, who has seizures and is very ill. The child will often fall into the fire or the water. Even your disciples have failed to effect a cure.”
In reply Jesus said, “What an unbelieving and perverse generation you are! How long must I endure you? Bring the child to me.” Then Jesus rebuked the demon and it came out, and the child was healed from that moment.
The disciples then came to Jesus and asked, “Why couldn’t we expel the demon?”
Jesus answered, “Because you have so little faith. The truth is, if you have even as much faith as the tiny mustard seed, you can be able to say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.”
The participants were asked how they felt about the story. Many of us felt angry at the idea of a disability being labelled as “demon possession”. But then we looked closer and noticed that Jesus’ challenge wasn’t to the child but rather to the disciples and the crowd: he rebuked them and then he cast out the demon.
We wondered if our ‘able-meant’ had led us to assume that the epileptic was the one who was exorcised. Couldn’t it more obviously be the others, who had failed to include and understand the child, who need exorcising of their fear and misapprehension.
How often was Jesus cure about social reintegration? How often did others exclude only for Jesus by affirmation of faith or by touch or both seek to re-include those who are on the edges?
Each week we challenge each other to some small action or research to help us respond to the stories we’ve heard and talked about.
We were left with other questions: Is there a published disabled reading of this scripture somewhere? How do other cultures interpret epilepsy, perhaps it’s not always negative? Some of us went away to research websites like The Kairos Forum or Open Ears; others to listen to “In Touch” on BBC Radio 4; others to simply be more aware or to meet with someone they knew who had a disability and ask them about their experiences.
Keith Hebden is the author of “Seeking Justice: The Radical Compassion of Jesus”.