Conversations on disability must change, says visiting theologian
Communities and churches must talk differently about disability, said Professor Thomas Reynolds of Emmanuel College, Toronto, Ontario, on Thursday (19 May).
He was the keynote speaker on the second day of the Conference on Theology, Disability and Human dignity, jointly hosted by the Faculty of Theology and the Centre for Rehabilitation Studies in the Faculty of Health Sciences at Stellenbosch University (SU).
“The way we speak to and about disabled people trivialises them, and sometimes disparaging remarks are their biggest obstacle,” said Reynolds.
He is of the opinion that people too often talk about disability as something that must be “tolerated and accommodated”. The idea that disabled people need “healing” victimises them.
According to Reynolds disability is not a problem or a tragic flaw, and the disabled person is more than his or her disability.
He argued that in our conversations on disability it is important to acknowledge our own vulnerability. “When we view disability through the lens of vulnerability, we do not see it as a lack of ability. The vulnerability of the disabled person exposes my own vulnerability.”
When we start to talk differently about disability and disabled people, we will also behave differently towards them.
The church and the society must acknowledge the human dignity of disabled people because it is not something that derives from our sense of completeness, said Reynolds.
Ms Gubela Mji, Director of the Centre for Rehabilitation Studies in SU’s Faculty of Health Sciences, argued that disability is complex and more than simple definitions and models are needed to understand it. Greater emphasis must be placed on the building of communities of trust, the development of awareness programmes and closer collaboration between different stakeholders.
Three disabled SU students shared their experiences with the audience during a panel discussion.
Ms Tatiana Metzger, who has cerebral palsy, bemoaned the lack of access and transport for disabled students on campus. According to Ms Ntsakisene Mashele, who is visually impaired, there are not always enough assistants to support disabled students during lectures. In addition, faculties lack representatives for these students. Ms Michelle Nell, a blind student, praised her lecturers for their support. However, university management, lecturers and disabled students need to work closer together, she said.