This week I was at a continent-wide conference on disability organised by EDAN, who are an ecumenical network. I think they’re something to do with the world council of churches. There were about forty people there, from around the continent. That tells me two things. One, disability is an under-thought-about area here. Two, like most conferences, this one suffered from an over-inflated sense of its own importance.
There were some great people there, it was fantastic to see some of the work happening in Cuba particularly, which seems like it’s a million years ahead of most of the rest of the world in this aspect. In fact the best thing about this conference was being with disabled people, and hearing from disabled people in leadership, particularly disabled women in leadership.
The question that I didn’t manage to answer at any stage was “what are we here for?” For example, we spent quite a lot of time formulating, and arguing about the semantics of various “statements” of belief and intent. I wonder what the ratio will be of the person-hours that went into those documents, to the person-hours that will read them in the future. I also wondered what relationship this conference has to our day to day lives. How does the fact that I was here this week impact on me or anyone else at 4.30 next Monday, or 11.30 next Thursday? I think that’s probably my general feeling about conferences; we’re so hooked into acting as though our little gathering was of global importance, that we end up not having the impact that we could have had if we’d had a more realistic appraisal of our sphere of influence. The irony is that if we weren’t so busy acting as though we can change the world, then we might actually be able to change the world.
I’m currently mulling around lots of thoughts and ideas, so I guess that’s what I was doing there, whatever else was supposed to be the official purpose. These are some of the things that I am thinking about… they’re not very developed yet, which is why this is on the blog rather than an article on the website. I’ll probably turn it into an article at some stage, particularly because I’m about to write a lot of stuff in English, which will exclude many people from reading it, who ought to be given the right to respond. Our plan in the medium term is to have our website available Spanish to make it more accessible to our friends and colleagues here.
- The introductory session was about violence and disability in the bible. It was a solidly developed overview, I appreciated it very much. We took a wide definition of violence, defining exclusion, making people invisible, not allowing people to speak for themselves, acting as though people didn’t exist, as acts of violence. I kept coming back to these points during the conference, especially because I was rather concerned that people with learning disabilities were notable by their absence. Not only were they not there, but they were also rarely mentioned; at one point we were given statistics, divided into people who are blind /deaf / with motor disabilities. I expect that people with learning disabilities weren’t barred from coming, but they hadn’t been invited, and they weren’t there, even in the statistics, and their voices weren’t heard. This is the same in the UK, people with learning disabilities find themselves excluded both from the “mainstream” of society, and from the very organisations which claim to be a voice for inclusion. By its own definitions, this conference was committing an act of violence in acting as though a group of people didn’t exist. That the conference itself didn’t spot this I suspect is related to the stereotype that violence is only really violence if it is committed by white on black, man on woman, or non-disabled on disabled person.
- In the same session, we made the point that when we say we are working for inclusion in one context, if we are not prepared to admit it in other contexts for fear of what the “rest” might think of us, then we are committing an act of betrayal, which is another example of violence. I was jolted back to this point on the final day, when another of the missionaries present stated that although they agreed we should use gender inclusive language of “people” rather than “men” to talk about pastors, they still used the word “men” in their newsletter “because of the circles that we move in”. I’m trying to see both sides of this. It might be a supreme act of irony that their supporters are unknowingly supporting an inclusion that they would not believe in. It might be a pragmatic approach for a greater good, as in Rahab shielding the Israelites (Joshua 2). But in the context of our opening session, it feels quite a lot like a travesty, an act of violence, a betrayal of women everywhere, of women leaders in particular, and especially of the two disabled women pastors who were there at this conference, by rendering them nameless, invisible, pretending that they don’t exist.
- In the middle of what was otherwise a good lecture, the speaker (non-disabled) stated that “the purpose of disabled people is to test the faith and the humanity of the Christian community”. If the speaker had been a disabled person, I wonder if they would have posed the question as to why non-disabled people exist, and what answer would they have come up with? Despite all our professions of equality, it seems like the conference still wanted to embrace some hierarchy; the purpose of non-disabled people is to be conformed to the image of God, the purpose of disabled people is to test how far the rest of us are conformed to the image of God.
- One encouraging moment was a presentation on developments in Cuba. In particular I was struck by a photograph taken at a conference of disabled people in leadership. The thing that struck me most was the number of people in that photograph – a good thirty or forty people, with disabilities, in Christian leadership. If that conference had taken place in the UK it could have been held in a phone-box, with space to spare. In fact it could have shared the same phone box with a parallel conference for women leaders in mission, and still had space left over, but don’t get me going on that one. Unfortunately, the situation in Argentina, and I guess most of Latin America, isn’t as forward thinking as Cuba. One of the things that I learnt this week is that there really is almost nothing happening here in Cordoba. I thought that I just hadn’t yet met the right people, but from what I have found out this week, in this city of a million people, there actually isn’t anyone to meet. I am trying to see ways forward, and to experience this as an opportunity rather than a problem, but if I’m honest my first reaction is “here I am Lord; send someone else….”