Fighting discrimination is in our DNA

Posted in Culture

Recently, a religious organisation called for a religious exemption to the Disability Discrimination Act, arguing that people with mental illnesses could disturb the “sacred activities” in church services. Rev Andy Calder, a Uniting Church Deacon and the Disability Inclusion Officer of the Synod of Victoria and Tasmania, responds.

Forty years from our birth as the Uniting Church, the Basis of Union still reminds us that mission is nothing less than the reconciliation and renewal of the whole creation (Paragraph 3).

The Church is called to serve that end and continue the ministry of Jesus in word and deed. Our ‘DNA’ – the essence of what makes us who we are as church – is disturbed by actions and policies that perpetuate division and derision.

Such divisiveness can be based on gender, wealth, employment, heritage, language or ability, to name a few. Derision of individuals or groups who don’t conform to mainstream expectations of behavioural or financial contribution can take the form of such language as ‘leaners and lifters’.

Our Church’s DNA is also disturbed by actions or inactions which contribute to vulnerable people experiencing stigma and exclusion.

Sometimes faith communities and community service agencies turn out not to be places of welcome and sanctuary. We should be willing to speak up whenever and wherever any form of abuse or discrimination takes place.

Australia’s first Disability Discrimination Commissioner, Elizabeth Hastings, was appointed in 1992. Elizabeth lived with the effects of polio and understood the stigma faced by people living with a disability.

In 1957, her migration to Australia under the “Ten-Pound Pom Scheme” was initially refused by the Australian government because of the effects of polio. Her father appealed to the then immigration minister Harold Holt, and eight-year-old Elizabeth was granted entry with the rest of her family, but only if they paid full fare.

In her role as Commissioner, Elizabeth had carriage of the federal Disability Discrimination Act 1991 (the DDA). The Act enshrines protection of people with disabilities from abuse and discrimination, both direct and indirect, from the provision of goods, services and facilities.

Elizabeth went on to become the manager of the Justice and Social Responsibility Unit in the Synod of Victoria and Tasmania, a role she held until her death in 1998.

While affirming the need for intentional action on disability within the Church, Elizabeth critiqued the need for terms such as “inclusion” – because all people are included according to God’s grace.

While the Uniting Church continues to examine and critique current practices, the past weeks and months have witnessed events in the public arena which run counter to the principles of the DDA and to the Uniting’s Church’s DNA of justice and compassion.

Abuse (physical, sexual) of people with disabilities can never be tolerated. Its pernicious reach has become so widespread that current safeguards and protocols need serious examination and correction to ensure such abuse is eliminated. The national Uniting Church Disability Working Group supports the call for the federal government to act urgently to ensure all people, including those in receipt of the NDIS, are protected by the highest of standards.

Uniting Church DNA means we should be closely scrutinising any proposals - such as a recent proposal that requested an exemption under the DDA to limit or exclude people with mental health issues from attending worship, on the grounds that certain behaviours are “disruptive to sacred activities”. (Read more here.)

How many other exemptions might be sought if this was granted? How does this stack up with Jesus’ embrace of the outsider and that in ‘welcoming a stranger it might just be that an angel is encountered’?

The recent uproar following Pauline Hanson’s call for students with autism be separated from mainstream classes also plays into division and perpetuates the mentality of “winners and losers”, “them and us” – fear of difference, fear of the other.

Much has been gained in recent decades by policies that dedicate resources (never enough) to provide education and social connectedness in ways that enhance understanding and acceptance.

Uniting Church DNA compels us to speak out when we see the gains of the past decades under threat through ignorance and fear.

This article was originally published by Crosslight magazine. It has been edited slightly for use here.

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Comments (1)

  1. Janice Merrritt 27 july 2017, 19:32 Link
    Sadly a quite shallow article that spouts platitudes about a very complex subject. No one, including the submission made, suggested discrimination about folk with disabilities as such. But what does one do with a person, [disabled or not] who is abusive and obscene, and sometimes threatening, with their language in public gatherings? Are ordinary well mannered folk not permitted to put limitations on this sort of behaviour until some boundaries are established.?
    We are called to be patient and kind, but Jesus was not afraid to put boundaries in place about behaviour and attitude. Why are we?
    In this day and age of anything goes, the church seems to have forgotten that God has standards and asks us to work towards applying them.