When asked to imagine a community, we would probably describe a group or groups of people brought together by interests, shared space, beliefs or experience. Not that this suggests that conformity is necessary to the cohesion of any given community.
Communities are, in fact, enormously enriched by the diversity, uniqueness, experience and expression of every individual member, no matter their ability. With this understanding, it is high time that the lives of disabled people are celebrated for everything that they can and do bring to the community. Much can be learnt from their participation and shared experiences.
Our culture has a rigid definition of the attributes we must conform to so that we learn to live well in the world.
Throughout history people who have communication skills, or physical attributes, that are different from a perceived norm, have been set apart not by their abilities but by a lack of recognition and attention.
Time and time again the unique insights, wisdom and opinions of disabled people have been overlooked and ignored. However, by paying closer attention, one will discover that disabled people adopt a more creative approach to life, and learn alternative yet equally valid skills to develop and narrate their stories.
Labels that are given to some people become integrated into our thinking and society. This in turn can become enshrined in law. While legislation ensures that society is inclusive and adaptive to the needs of others, building community is not about meeting legislation. Building community is about the face-to-face recognition and receipt of the unique gift of every person. In so doing, we learn to be together.
The presence of disabled people creates a rich and colourful community, where who a person is, is more important than presumptions about what a person can or cannot do.
Where a community recognises, attends to and incorporates the hopes and the needs of disabled people it possesses the vibrancy of a creative wisdom at its core.
When a culture of inter-dependence and partnership is created, communities of belonging are fostered. By this, we mean communities where each person has their rightful and honoured place and where we learn from the wisdom of each other’s gifts, outlooks and bodies. A community of belonging celebrates the richness of diversity and colours all activities and thoughts, and a ‘partnership’ becomes the ‘usual and typical’ way to live.
In this way, the ‘norm’ is redefined, barriers are removed and everybody has a place.
Community becomes a place where each person is enabled by the other and where hospitality and empathy are the starting points of all relationship and provision.
It is one’s own personal view of people that can either exclude or disable or, indeed, value and enable. As my former colleague, Canon John O’Toole, explained, when I was working as diocesan advisor in Southwark, disabled people do not need others to do things for them, but with them.
Canon John had discovered that there is no ‘them and us’. There is only ‘us’. Learning from the many creative ways that people communicate and live, reveals the beauty of each individual no matter their ability.
In building community we should each aim to give space to people, to accompany each other, so that each person can express their needs and inner spirit in a way that reveals the beauty of the person they were born to be.
What can be learned with disabled people? We learn to celebrate being alive in all its possibilities and through all our uniqueness, richness and diversity. Now that’s creative learning!
Cristina Gangemi holds a Master’s degree in Pastoral Theology with a special focus on disability. She is the coordinator of the Livability Community Network, which works to build community through celebrating and releasing the experience and expression of all. Cristina specialises in differentiated communication in the area of spirituality and whole-person approaches. She is passionate about enabling the lives of people who have been disabled.