Monday, April 20, 2009

General Convention 2009: Health Issues 3

This is my third post on the Report to General Convention of the Standing Commission on Health. Let me address another topic from that Report.

Perhaps more attention in this Report is paid to issues related to disabled persons than to any other issue. Acknowledging thankfully the work of the Episcopal Disabilities Network, the Commission notes, “As a church whose mission is to be inclusive in welcoming all people to live in sacred community, the welcoming of disabled persons is often made difficult and sometimes impossible by the lack of attention to accessibility to facilities and to programs.” The Commissions first step is to point to resources:

The Disability Concerns Committee in the Diocese of Massachusetts has developed a series of leaflets and other printed material that are available for use throughout the church. The SCOH commends these excellent aids listed below.

  • How a ‘Disability Matters Committee’ can work in a parish.
  • Parish Prayer about disability matters.
  • A Cane Means ‘Don’t Bump!’ – an educational program for pre-schoolers.
  • Your rights and obligations as a parent or a godparent of a child with special needs.
  • Preparing my child with special needs for independent Christian living as an adult.
  • Disability policies for Episcopal parishes.
  • Your congregation is getting an elevator or a lift.
  • Where to place wheelchair cut-outs in sanctuaries.
  • Oh, so your parish is getting a ramp! Making it do its job.
  • Possible funding sources for disability work in Episcopal congregations.
  • Conducting a Visit-ability survey of parishioners’ homes.
  • Episcopal church web site disability notices.
  • Principles to use in church disability access work.
  • Facilitating relationships between parishioners with developmental disabilities and other parishioners.

  • Ideas for a Diocesan Disability Matters Committee.
  • Proposed sample web page for a diocese beginning disability work.
  • Establishing a diocesan architect consultation program.
  • Usher training workshop ideas regarding disability matters.

Having suggested meaningful resources, the Commission Report presents two resolutions. The first speaks to issues of discernment of vocations for disabled persons.

Resolved, the House of _____ concurring, That all Dioceses encourage qualified people with disabilities to begin ministry discernment as described in Title III of the Constitution and Canons of The Episcopal Church; and be it further

Resolved, That the discernment process for people with disabilities be the same as the discernment process for persons who are temporarily able-bodied; and be it further

Resolved, the Commissions on Ministry and Standing Committees apply the same standards to persons with disabilities as they apply to persons who are temporarily able-bodied.

That phrase, “temporarily able-bodied” might be considered an important corrective to our perspective. As the Report notes, “We are an aging church—50% of all Episcopalians are over 50 years of age. If one lives long enough, one will acquire one or more disabilities.” However, at this point, “Although people with disabilities comprise the largest minority in the country, there are no more than a handful of clergy with disabilities who are active in The Episcopal Church.” The Report also notes the unique gifts disabled clergy could bring, not only to ministry with disabled parishioners, but also to ministry with those with chronic illnesses, and also to the Church’s demonstration of full inclusion.

The second resolution speaks to full inclusion in official meetings of the Church.

Resolved, the House of _____ concurring, That reasonable accommodations, such as sign language interpreters, motorized scooters or similar adaptive equipment, be made available and financed by The Episcopal Church, dioceses or parishes sending staff members or volunteers who are disabled to conferences or meetings on behalf of the church.

It is worth noting that these resolutions are consistent with past actions of General Convention. Resolution 1985-A087 calls for “all Episcopal Church properties and all Episcopal Church meeting places be made (so far as possible) accessible… and barrier-free;” for “qualified persons with disabilities not [to] be disqualified for postulancy, for Holy Orders, for ordination or for further employment in the Church solely on the basis of their handicap;” and “[t]hat this Church at national, diocesan and local places encourage and support the assumption of leadership roles in both church and community by qualified persons who have disabilities.” Access to the ordination process was specifically affirmed in 1994 when resolution C020 added, among other important categories, physical disability to canonical categories for non-discrimination, and resolution D007 changed the Ministry Canons so that, again among others, those with physical disabilities would not be denied access to the ordination process. We can also note that resolution 1991-D089 commended the Americans with Disabilities Act, and called on Church organizations to comply.

With these references to past actions of General Convention, one might ask whether new resolutions are necessary. My own observation as one who is interested in what General Convention has said on various subjects is that we Episcopalians can have remarkably short memories from one Convention to the next. We are too prone to react to the exciting issue of any given year, and pay little attention to other actions of continuing merit. As a hospital chaplain, I can assure you that persons living with disabilities are still marginalized, and often invisible in our society. It is certainly helpful that more and more supermarkets and megastores are offering powerchairs for shoppers. In a way that important corrective that most of us are simply “temporarily able-bodied” is coming to our attention. At the same time, there are still barriers, physical, emotional, and social to the full participation of persons with disabilities in our the life of our society. We can renew our efforts that there may be no barriers to their full participation in the life of the Church.

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