As people around the world celebrate the United Nations International Day of Persons with Disabilities this week, The Salvation Army has produced a positional statement that makes clear the value it places on people of all ages who have disabilities.
The 2020 theme ‘Not all Disabilities are Visible’ focuses on spreading awareness and understanding of disabilities that are not immediately apparent, such as mental illness, chronic pain or fatigue, sight or hearing impairments, diabetes, brain injuries, neurological disorders, learning differences and cognitive dysfunctions, among others.
According to the World Health Organization’s World Report on Disability, 15 per cent of the world’s population – or more than one billion people – are living with disability. Of this number, an estimated 450 million are living with a mental or neurological condition – and two-thirds of these people will not seek professional medical help, largely due to stigma, discrimination and neglect.
The Salvation Army’s international mission statement asserts that it will ‘meet human needs ... without discrimination’, a fact recognised through the publication of an International Positional Statement (IPS) on Disabilities, approved by General Brian Peddle.
A positional statement is an articulation, crafted with careful and prayerful thought, of the official viewpoint of The Salvation Army. Each IPS is put together by the International Moral and Social Issues Council, which is comprised of Salvation Army officers and soldiers from all over the world.
As well as stating the position, each document expresses the scriptural and theological grounds for the statement and the underlying principles.
Officers and others representing The Salvation Army are expected to speak consistently with the stated position, which is available to view by the public. It is understood, however, that individual Salvationists may hold different views on some subjects and acceptance of the official position is not essential to membership.
The IPS on Disabilities states: ‘All people are made in the image of God and are of equal intrinsic value. Thus, The Salvation Army celebrates difference and seeks to treat all people with dignity and respect.’
Recognising that many people around the world experience discrimination due to disabilities, from stigma or negative attitudes to deeply engrained and systemic exclusion, the statement adds: ‘We know less of who God is and how God appears in the world when people with disabilities are excluded. Inclusion is beneficial for everyone. Diversity within our communities and congregations strengthens us and shapes our mission and ministry. The aim of all Salvationist practice is to ensure that we are a church that makes the embodied gospel accessible for all.’
The international Salvation Army has a history of working with and valuing people with disabilities. In Tanzania, for instance, it runs Matumaini, a primary boarding school for disabled and albino children.
Operating for more than 20 years, Matumaini is the largest school of its kind in the country, providing support and education to children from communities around Tanzania. It maintains the highest educational standards, as set by the Tanzanian Ministry of Education, and also provides physical therapy and operates a workshop for the manufacturing and repair of walking appliances and chairs.
For many of the children at Matumaini, the school provides the opportunity to have a full and active life, with skills that enable them to take a full part in society. A number of children also benefit from simple corrective surgery that enables them to walk unaided.
In the United Kingdom, the Steps to Work programme at the world-famous Strawberry Field facility in Liverpool, reaches out to young adults with learning difficulties or other barriers to employment through a training hub. Thanks to partnerships with local education providers, including the City of Liverpool College, and the investment of local businesses and organisations, Steps to Work can offer a 12-18 month programme for 18-25-year-olds that combines education and work placements to ensure trainees are truly work-ready.
Steps to Work consists of an eight-week work readiness course, followed by three different three-month work placements. These placements include two days per week of vocational training and two days per week in a work environment to move young people into employment or meaningful volunteering.
For many people with disabilities, the potential for isolation has been increased by the measures that have been put in place to combat the spread of COVID-19. The Salvation Army is trying to address these extra difficulties in practical ways.
In Kalimpong, India, in the foothills of the Himalayas, staff at The Salvation Army's Mary Scott School for blind and partially-sighted children have been working hard to ensure continuity of education since lockdown began in March. Most students returned to their families, presenting a considerable challenge to the team due to the rugged, remote location and limited access to technology.
Major Lalthlamuana, the school’s superintendent, explains: ‘We contemplated online learning, but due to restricted availability of the Internet in the area … felt this would not be as accessible or inclusive. So teachers prepared class notes and other study materials for the students. Since Braille text books are not easily available, we prepared our own course of study, “printed” it in Braille and distributed it to all the families – and to those children who have had to remain at our hostel throughout the pandemic.’
Students staying at the school in Kalimpong have also benefited from small group tutorials and study groups. ‘We really appreciate all the teachers and staff for their love and hard work in ensuring ongoing provision to our children at this difficult time,’ says the major.
As the new IPS on Disabilities outlines: ‘The goal of any response should be to eliminate a dividing line between “us” and them” … The Salvation Army embraces, promotes and models an understanding of persons with disabilities as people created in the image of God, with a unique and invaluable contribution to make in all aspects of life in community.’
Report by IHQ Communications