Synod of Victoria and Tasmania

30     Disability Access Guidelines

That the Assembly resolve:

(a)               To adopt the following ‘Statement of Access and Welcome’ as a starting point for further conversation and action regarding justice and equality for people with disability as it provides a basis for the Assembly and Synods to develop their particular response to this matter.

Statement of Access and Welcome

In accordance with the Uniting Church Basis of Union, the Church is a fellowship of reconciliation, “a body within which the diverse gifts of its members are used for the building up of the whole, an instrument through which Christ may work, and bear witness to himself” (Paragraph 3). In light of this, the Uniting Church affirms that:

(a)   Christ is most fully present when all people in the Body are unconditionally accepted as people of worth. All people are created in the image of God, including people with disability;

(b)   along with all members, the faith, gifts, hopes and dreams of people with disability are to be valued and honoured; and

(c)   God is a God of justice and peace, who seeks reconciliation amongst all people.

In seeking to be a community of reconciliation, the Uniting Church acknowledges that for many people with disability its life and faith has not always borne witness to this vision. The Uniting Church seeks:

  • to embody a community life that in its theology and practice is accessible to all people;
  • to ensure that within its own life people with disability are treated justly and have their hopes and rights realised; and
  • to advocate for justice and equality for people with disability in the wider community.

(b)              To request the Standing Committee to develop disability access guidelines for use at all events and activities overseen by the Assembly, and to encourage each Synod to develop similar disability access guidelines for use at Synod events and meetings.

(c)               To encourage each Synod to develop Disability Action Plans in accordance with the federal Disability Discrimination Act 1992, with the aim of eliminating access barriers pertaining to:

(i)      Attitude/Theology and access and welcome;

(ii)     Communication; and

(iii)    Physical Environment.

(d)              To request the appropriate Standing Committee to arrange for the development of an appropriate liturgical response which acknowledges the historical exclusion experienced by many people with disability.

Proposer:

Mark Lawrence

Seconder:

Simon Hansford

Rationale:

In the Gift of BeingCalled to be a Church of All and for All, a powerful image is Paul’s message to the Ephesians that Christ has come to tear down the walls that separate us (Eph.2:14). Divisions between “us” and “them” are the mark that such walls continue to exist. Although persons living with impairment are kept less behind walls in segregated places, the walls of fear and prejudice remain, even within the church.[1]

People labelled with disability continue to be under-represented in congregations across the Uniting Church in Australia, giving rise to questions of why that is so and how it might be addressed. The church is poorer as a result, and in need of a ‘theology of access’ in which the diverse gifts of its members are used for the building up of the whole’ (Basis of Union para 3).

A ‘theology of access and welcome’ highlights disability as an issue of oppressive structures and exclusion. An Accessible God theology provides images of welcome, based on accounts of Jesus’ ministry of welcoming people regardless of nationality, gender, background or physical condition. This approach also calls for an end to structures and attitudes that are exclusionary. The approach:

….demands we search our community with truth and face the serious reality that some of the people of God have been systematically denied access to the community. It forces us to ask difficult questions. How can we become more inclusive? What actions do we need to take? What skills do we need? How must we change to make this gospel demand a reality in our communities? We cannot be faithful to our Christian vocation if we are not serious about the Christian mandate for inclusion.[2]

Whilst much has been achieved in mitigating exclusionary structures and attitudes, the Uniting Church is called to maintain its vigilance. Assembly is also reminded that all religious organisations in Australia are subject to the federal Disability Discrimination Act 1992.

In 2006 the Standing Committee of the National Assembly encouraged each Synod to develop Disability Action Plans in accordance with this Act, recognizing then that the Church needed to continue with the task of eliminating access barriers (06.100.04). In 2018, we need to reiterate this challenge and respond to it. This Assembly has an opportunity for the first time to adopt and affirm a ‘Statement of Theology and Welcome’, with associated recommendations, thus providing leadership and guidance for the Synods.

Background

During 2017 dialogue between Rev Dr Trevor Whitney (SA Synod), Dr Damian Palmer Charles Sturt University (NSW/ACT Synod), and Rev (Deacon) Andy Calder (Synod Victoria and Tasmania) affirmed the 2006 Assembly decision and subsequent actions by Synods. However, momentum has stalled and it is time for a deeper response.

Feedback from people with disability, families and carers about their welcome and participation in congregations is varied: from positive to indifferent to hostile. This proposal urges the development of a liturgical resource which would acknowledge the historic under-representation and pain/shame of exclusion (this may take the form of a lament which could be used in congregations at the beginning of Advent, coinciding with 3 December International Day of People with Disability).

 

Many agencies of the Uniting Church have links and relationships with congregations. The Disability Working Group of UnitingCare Australia supported the recommendations in this proposal at its 28 November 2017 meeting as a constructive encouragement to enhance the capacity of congregations to be places of welcome.

[1]     World Council of Churches, Para 37, Document No. GEN PRO 06 rev, 2016

[2]     Block, J.W., Copious hosting: A Theology of Access for people with disabilities. New York. Continuum. 2002 p 122-123.