The Power of Disability
At the Denis Hurley Centre in Durban, we aspire to live up to Pope Francis’ vision of the Church as “the House that welcomes all and refuses no one”. So, as well as providing a safe place for fellow citizens who are homeless, or refugees, or drug addicts, we also try to be a place where people with disabilities feel welcome.
I am proud that our building incorporates simple but important features that ensure that someone who is blind or a wheelchair-user can navigate their way around easily. It is shocking to me that step-free access is not incorporated into all new buildings in South Africa, as it is in many other parts of the world.
Khulisani – Training the disabled for employment
These features meant that we could have a wheelchair-bound receptionist. We found her through an excellent organisation called Khulisani which trains and deploys adults with disabilities so they can get opportunities in the workplace.
What is more, this is at no cost to the hosting organisation and benefits the corporate who sponsors them (for more information contact www.khulisani.co.za).
We have also had the pleasure of having young women with learning disabilities and cerebral palsy working in our kitchen or helping at reception. The great change is how quickly we all forget about the label disabled and just see the person.
We have now taken two even bolder steps. The Denis Hurley Centre finally has a full-time tour guide, an excellent young man. Thembi Langa knows everything there is to know about our centre and the life of Archbishop Denis Hurley. He can navigate his way easily around the building, giving tours in English and isiZulu. And he happens to be totally blind.
As he tells the stories of Hurley standing up for the marginalised and the forgotten, it takes on an extra poignancy when you realise that he cannot see the pictures that he is directing you to look at.
The next step in our commitment to empowering people is setting up a training café staffed by adults who are deaf. They will go through a 12-month NVQ course, using the medium of sign language, learning business skills, computer proficiency and catering skills. We would be pleased to hear from anyone who wants to help us with that project, especially with donations of café equipment.
People of Faith and Disability
Our commitment to people with disabilities is not only because it is the human thing to do but also because I feel that people of faith need to show an exemplary standard in this regard.
Historically, religions have not always shown great sympathy to the disabled. Being told that your condition is a test from God, or a punishment for your sins, or for the sins of your ancestors, is not likely to help you feel positive about yourself.
A friend of mine who is a priest and profoundly deaf told me that a few decades ago the Catholic Church would have refused to ordain him because he was “imperfect” (as if any of the rest of us was perfect!).
But thankfully there have been many examples of faith groups taking a positive lead in supporting the disabled.
Many schools for deaf or blind children were originally set up by religious organisations.
One very dear to my heart is Kwa Thintwa School for the Deaf near Durban which was founded by Archbishop Hurley himself when he encountered a young deaf man who could not read and write because there was no school for him to attend. Forty years on, the school has almost 400 residential students and for the past seven years has enjoyed a 100% matric pass rate. So much for deaf people being “imperfect”!
One of the privileges of my work is to partner with SANZAF, the Muslim Development Agency, whose head, Saffura Khan, is blind. She often points out to me that disability is not something inherent in the person but rather created by the situation around them.
A partially blind woman I worked with a few years ago suddenly became more productive when we bought her a larger computer screen so she could read an enlarged typeface. She was not in herself disabled— she had been disabled by her employer’s thoughtlessness; she was re-enabled by the use of technology.
Thembi and the Blind Navigators Rally
I first met Thembi, our tour guide, as part of a Blind Navigators’ Rally.
As a sighted driver, had to drive a defined course of over 100km guided solely by Thembi who was sitting beside me reading instructions in Braille. It was an excellent challenge for those of us who think we know everything.
As a driver, I had to completely rely on my navigator and trust his ability to read the instructions and share them with me. Of course, we did get lost from time to time. But eventually we managed to reach the destination and also clock in at the series of prescribed way stations in the right order and at the right time.
This seems to me a great metaphor for the journey of faith. We all hope to reach the same destination — eternal happiness — but how we get there matters as much as whether we get there.
On our journey, we need to rely on others to point us along the way. That requires the self-awareness of asking for help and the humility of seeking help from those who are not like us and have different talents.
By learning from those we encounter and appreciating their strengths (even if not immediately obvious) we become more aware of our own weaknesses and so more appreciative of what we all can do.
Perhaps the blind and deaf young people at the Denis Hurley Centre can help us to see and to hear better than we think we can.