The Vocation of People with Severe Learning Disabilities

by Kim on December 5, 2006

This is the title of a lecture given last night at the University of Wales Swansea by the Revd. Dr. Frances Young, former Cadbury Professor of Theology at the University of Birmingham, who herself has a severely disabled son, Arthur. The following is a slightly adapted “Vote of Thanks” I gave at the conclusion of the lecture (and it comes with Professor Young’s imprimatur!).

At a recent Student Christian Movement meeting, our guest speaker was Will Morrey, former President of the Methodist Conference and presently the South Wales District Chair. (A District Chair, I should explain, is something like an Anglican bishop - without the purple - or the power!) Will was born fully able to hear - but while at university he became totally deaf. His talk reminded me of an article by Professor John Hull, also a Methodist, who was born sighted - but became totally blind. In the article, Professor Hull has a go at Jesus himself for one of the legacies of his healing ministry, the brunt of the charge being that while Jesus heals the disabled, he never calls the disabled, as disabled, to follow him. And the question then presses itself: what does that say about the vocation of the disabled? Thus I have keenly anticipated tonight’s lecture by Professor Young - yet another Methodist! (Methodists are like buses - none at all for ages, and then they come in two’s and three’s!) I - and I trust you - have not been disappointed.

Against conventional theodicies, and above all against a culture that has lost its way, where its answer to the question, “What are people for?” is, “For autonomy and control, for health and beauty, for performance and productivity,” Professor Young has lodged a considerable critique. Human beings, she says, are made for friendship, and human communities are made for hospitality. And it would seem to be the vocation of so-called disabled people to take this gospel to so-called indepedent, fit, and achieving folk.

It is not, observe, a question of the abled bringing help to the disabled - just the reverse: the disabled are the ones who bring help to the abled by showing that we are all, one way or another, limited, broken, and needy flesh, who are who we are only in interdependent relationships where asking for help is a sign not of our weakness but of our created and redeemed humanity. But - another crucial point - each in a different way, such that the church, as a sacrament, becomes the place, like l’Arche communities, not where we have to pretend that we are all the same, but rather where irreducible otherness is recognised, respected, and celebrated. In such communities there is shalom, salaam, peace. That is the prophetic vocation of the disabled - to point us to the Christ who even as risen bears scars on his body, and who, as Lord, calls us and sends us in community because he needs our help.

That, anyway, is my take and trajectory on Professor Young’s lecture, for which we thank you - and Arthur - us in our otherness and you in yours - as strangers yet friends.

Finally this. Did anyone see the Times exactly three weeks ago? In it the paper’s chief sports writer Simon Barnes describes life with his five-year-old son Eddie, who has Down’s syndrome. “What’s it like? How terrible is it? Is it terrible at all?” Mr. Barnes asks. And he concludes: “It depends, I suppose, on how well you are loved.” Doesn’t it just!

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The Washington Institute - What are People For?
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Pam 12.05.06 at 9:23 am

Thank you for that. Sounds like a stunning lecture. I’m linking this post.


ee 12.06.06 at 4:20 pm

Very interesting, I wish I had heard that lecture. I’ve worked with adults with learning disabilities most of my adult life, and I give training in disability issues, so these are things that interest me greatly, particularly from a theological point of view.

I’m very wary of giving a vocation to a homogenised group of people though - surely God’s calling to each is unique? I’m personally more concerned with how non-disabled people stress the primacy of beauty, power etc in a way that excludes disabled people, and reduces their feeling of self worth. Which is partly what the lecturer was saying - celebrating ‘otherness’ in our communities is vital. My contention is that we all have a lot of ‘otherness’ to bring to the table, not just disabled people!


Kim 12.06.06 at 8:59 pm

Hi ee.

Your contention is my contention - and Frances Young’s contention too.


James Church 12.07.06 at 1:26 pm

I would be interested to hear your views on genetic screening and to what extent such medical intervention undermines our talk of respecting and even celebrating ‘otherness’?


Richard 12.07.06 at 2:46 pm

One of Frances Young’s main points was that in embracing ‘the vocation of people with severe learning difficulties’ the church would be taking a prophetic stand against a culture in which it is assumed that genetic defects will be ’screened out’.


James Church 12.07.06 at 4:18 pm

I am very pleased that he raised that point.


ee 12.07.06 at 5:00 pm

I absolutely agree with these comments - if you’re interested in this stuff, Tom Shakespeare makes for good reading. I think he’s a Quaker, he is a ‘person of restricted growth’ and one of the leading thinkers on disability, genetic screening and eugenics. His website is: www(DOT)windmills(DOT)u-net(DOT)com.

The church has a terrible press in the disability rights movement for its historical exclusion and paternalism - it would be lovely if we now led the inclusion debate.


Anne 12.10.06 at 4:21 pm

Yes, and Frances Young is a she not a he :-)


Richard 12.10.06 at 4:59 pm

I’m sure that was just a misprunt on James’ part, Anne. But thanks for pointing it out. The same mistake was made in our local newspaper.


James Church 12.10.06 at 10:46 pm

my humble apologies - unlike the scriptures there is no question of my inerrancy.

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