I was delighted to see Charlotte Riggle’s response [Disability in the Orthodox Parish: A Call to Love] to my response [One Woman’s Story: Mental Health, Autism, and Orthodox Pastoral Care] to Father Isaac Skidmore’s article [On Mental Health Referrals by Orthodox Clergy]. Again I wanted to respond.
Riggle has done an outstanding job of pointing all of us toward the many areas in the Church where inclusion still needs some work, to put it mildly.
I’m on welfare with a disability in the Netherlands. Compared to the rest of the world, I’m not that badly off. There’s room for improvement—lots of room for improvement—but generally speaking, it could be worse. It is worse, in many places.
However, from what I see in various countries, some views hold true everywhere. My value as a citizen is judged by my production. Do I generate income, taxable income, to offset the costs of having me in this country?
We’re most definitely second class—while we are required by law to work unless it is absolutely, unequivocally clear that we’d be a danger to other people in the regular job market, there are a ton of regulations in place to protect employers from our limited production. Right now, we’re in an economic boom, at least on paper, so there’s excess resources to invest in pushing us into the job market.
We’ll also be the first to go, once recession hits, as it inevitably will.
Aside from the obvious insecurities this causes, it also shows that meeting our needs is considered something of a luxury., something society does when it has some money to spare. We’re also the first hit with budget cuts when it doesn’t.
The Church not only does the same thing, but it’s actually behind society in many regards.
The first problem with this is the attitude that we’re second class. When choices have to be made, who is dispensable? We worry about churches emptying and teens leaving; but that some people are leaving because there’s no place for them, literally and/or metaphorically, doesn’t appear to merit quite as much concern.
The second problem is the scarcity of resources. It is undeniably true that, in many places, Orthodox parishes are small, far apart, and lacking funds. There may only be one priest and deacon, or just the one priest, working himself to exhaustion. Parishioners may live far from the parish, limiting their ability to invest their time and energy into parish work. Even in larger parishes, the amount of work may be overwhelming.
When such is the case, the same processes that happen in society as a whole also take place in church: when it’s already a challenge to simply keep services and Sunday school going, working toward inclusion for everyone is considered too difficult, too expensive, too time-consuming. Something to be put off until….
But by then it’s too late. I can’t opt out of society; I’ll have to deal with knowing that what is available today will be gone tomorrow. I can opt out of church. When church is yet another thing to survive and suffer through, why would I stay?
So what can the Church, and the parish, do?
Riggle said it: Look upon everyone with love. Act toward everyone with love. The attitude toward those with disabilities needs to change most of all, and only love will do that.
Look at what Jesus did. He took on loads of people with disabilities and made them welcome. (He did heal quite a large number of them, something not guaranteed for us.) He never once treated any of them as inferior, or considered investing in them to be something He’d get around to doing once He’d sorted out the larger group. In fact, He quite often dropped what He was doing to reach out to them. As a result, they followed Him. With Christ, no one is second rate.
We’re actually quite a good investment, too. We don’t have many safe places. Create one for us, and we’re sure to stick around. Once we’re comfortable, you’ll discover we have plenty to contribute.
Be creative. Cooperate with other parishes to see if it isn’t possible to hold a disability- friendly Liturgy somewhere every month or so. Presanctified Liturgies are already quite sensory-overload friendly; many of the tools are already at hand. A Liturgy that isn’t crowded so that people with sensory issues can cope, people in wheelchairs aren’t constantly jostled or pushed to and fro, people with mobility issues don’t have to worry about being bumped into and losing their balance, etc. Don’t instantly freak out and yell “But it’s not canon to celebrate Presanctified Liturgies outside of Lent!” Do what is necessary.
Incidentally, please take a moment to appreciate the utter irony of someone with autism, generally prone to being inflexible and a stickler for following rules, telling neurotypical people to loosen up and be more flexible.
Ask us, and believe us. Don’t decide for us what we need. There’s nothing stranger than a bunch of people without autism deciding on what to make available to those with autism, when there are a number of autistic people and families with autistic children standing right there saying, “Uh…we know quite well what we need.”
It doesn’t have to be perfect. Just one little step at a time will be enough to show we’re part of the Church and the Church wants to welcome us.
To make a difference, all the Church has to do is not conform to the world.
Editor’s note: In Toronto, St. George Greek Orthodox Church and Holy Trinity Russian Orthodox Church are equipped to get worshippers with mobility challenges from the street level to both the nave and the social hall in the basement. What can your parish do?
Monica Spoor [in her own words] really has no qualifications at all, aside from being Orthodox, on the autism spectrum, and stumbling around blindly trying to stay friends with God. She is the author of Spirituality on the Spectrum: Having Autism in the Orthodox Church, and is currently trying to wrap her mind around the concept of writing about herself in the third person. She also holds a Bachelor’s of Theology from the Evangelische Theologische Hogeschool in Ede, volunteers with special needs children, does translations, and serves as secretary of the regional advisory board for the department of welfare. She resides in Veenendaal, the Netherlands.