As the UK marks Disability History Month, the University of Aberdeen’s Léon Van Ommen, whose research focuses on autism and faith communities, considers the role of practical theology in informing new ideas to improve the spiritual care of those with disabilities.
There is a growing recognition among healthcare providers and charities that faith has a key role to play in supporting people with disabilities, neurological differences or dementia.
In hospices, support centres and within congregations, appreciation of the need for spiritual support alongside physical and psychological care is increasing.
As theologians, we have a critical role to play in helping to understand what happens to a person when they are affected by conditions that some choose to call disabilities The key is that we hope to offer views that do not perceive such conditions as necessarily a negative – which is the dominant view in society - but not necessary the most helpful one.
At the University of Aberdeen we have built significant expertise in disability theology through the work of several colleagues. We are in a fairly unique position of having four theologians within one department all focused upon the intersection of faith and disability.
This is enabling us to shape and grow the field of disability theology, one strand of which is the emerging study of faith and autism.
This is a fairly new area of research but one in which Aberdeen has a number of specialists. My own work explores autism in relation to worship, which is a core practice of Christian communities, while Professor Grant MacAskill is an expert in biblical studies. His recent book Autism and the Church: Bible, Theology, and Community, considers how the bible can inform the church to be a place where all people belong – including those who identify as autistic.
Likewise, Professor Brian Brock critically evaluates dominant paradigms of looking at disability in our society, and offers a theological alternative in order to create communities where the gifts of each person are valued.
This has all built upon the successful work of the University of Aberdeen’s Professor John Swinton in learning disabilities and mental health.
His books, including Dementia: Living in the memories of God, which won the 2016 Michael Ramsey Prize, have inspired new ways of thinking in caring for minds as well as bodies in those with mental health issues and disabilities.
As he has so eloquently expressed, ‘dementia does not erode a person’s worth, to be human is to be created and loved by God. That love does not have neurological parameters’.
One of our key objectives is to help people to understand that disability should not be stigmatised and that in fact living with a disability can be a valuable and valued way of being human.
But as theologians, the work that we do is not to remain in books or within the walls of universities.
Its true worth is in how these ideas can be embraced and utilised when it comes to congregations and care settings. We intend to use theology to open up spaces for new conversations that will bring value and empowerment to people with disabilities in the midst of a social context that tends to strip them of both.
Aberdeen has become the first university in the UK to launch courses specifically dedicated to the study of disability theology. These will support people working in organisations, charities and faith communities, as well as those with a more scholarly interest in this area.
We are already seeing a difference in the way churches and other organisations consider dementia on a practical level, from better signage to dementia prayer weeks and dementia cafes, but we want to equip those providing care with opportunities to think more critically about how we engage with those who have additional needs
This is an area of critical importance in the ongoing training of staff and management if we are to reimagine disability by taking a more person and community-centred approach.
We hope our online programme will help people not only to gain new insights when it comes to attending to the experiences and realities of people with disabilities and what it means to be human, but will support them in challenging standard cultural conceptions of normalcy and autonomy.
About the author: Léon van Ommen is programme co-ordinator for the Postgraduate Diploma in Theology and Disability.
His research focuses on the liturgy and worship practices of Christian communities and the way in which these communities can be welcoming to vulnerable or marginalised people. He is particularly interested in creating spaces of belonging for autistic people and their families. He is co-director of the Centre for the Study of Autism and Christian Community at the University of Aberdeen.