By Eric Martin
Twenty-five percent of Australians either live with a disability or have a close family member who does, and ensuring that this quarter of the population are able to engage with their local Church is the mission of the Personal Advocacy Service (PAS) – an agency of the Archdiocese of Perth.
PAS has been mandated by Archbishop Timothy Costelloe SDB to assist parishes to include People with an Intellectual Disability (PWID) into the liturgical and community life of each parish and has taken the first steps of this plan by recruiting and training the first cohort of Parish Inclusion Coordinators.
These are volunteers from some 15 Perth parishes who will assist their parish to become a more welcoming community for PWID, by identifying and actively inviting and welcoming PWID and their families into the parish community.
Kenneth Phua is the host of Seeing Without Eyes, a Vision Australia Radio show on Perth 990AM and VA Digital Radio, Perth on Fridays at 10am.
He is also a National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) participant, is legally blind and a vocal supporter of the work carried out by PAS in support of Catholics with a disability.
“Archbishop Costelloe – and before him Archbishop Hickey, Pope Francis, and Jesus Himself – have spoken passionately about including all marginalised people into the Body of Christ, which is our church,” Mr Phua explained.
“Without all its parts, this Body is not complete. Our agency – Personal Advocacy Service – focuses on the inclusion of people with intellectual disability – one of the most marginalised groups in our community.”
“Let’s face it, at some stage in our life we will all have some form of disability be it age, sight, hearing, infirmity, intellectual, emotional, psychological etc,” Mr Phua said.
“We know that we have a loving God to Whom we are all children – and we rightfully expect that we will be welcomed into His house and into His family.”
And yet, Mr Phua explained, people with intellectual disability (PWID) and their families have often had poor experiences in their parish.
“If the child is loud or disruptive the family may have suffered disapproving frowns or comments,” he said.
“When this happens, frequently the whole family never returns to church – what a tragedy and an indictment on a community which professes to have Christian charity.
“This disapproval is much less common in 2019 but many families with intellectually disabled children still suffer the wounds of 20 or 30 years ago.”
Most parish churches and facilities have fixed any physical barriers which prevented entry to people who are infirm or disabled yet many still need to address other barriers and install radio loops for the hard-of-hearing and large print overheads and bulletins for those with poor sight.
“However for PWID the biggest barrier is the attitude of the congregation,” Mr Phua shared.
“This is only human nature – when you haven’t learnt how to talk to someone with an intellectual disability, the tendency is to avoid them so as not to upset them or deeply embarrass yourself.”
“Consequently when PWID attend church or a parish social function, no one talks to them and unsurprisingly, they don’t come back!”
The most common issue for PWID is social isolation and lack of friends – PWID usually lack the skills to form and maintain friendships.
“They need patient and understanding people around them to allow them to process questions before expecting answers, people who can overlook comments or behaviours which they would not accept from others, people who can focus on what they can do rather than what they can’t,” Mr Phua explained.
“The concept is simple but the implementation may be another matter – but with good will it will happen.”
Each Parish Inclusion Coordinator will need to closely liaise with the families of PWID to adapt situations to fit individual needs – they all have different abilities and there is no ‘one size fits all’.
The coordinators will also liaise with those from near-by parishes to share experiences, solutions and resources. For example, a number of parishes may combine to initiate a youth group and/or liaise with a local Catholic school.
“We expect this programme to be a ‘no cost’ ministry for each parish as Personal Advocacy Service is a funded agency of the Perth Archdiocese,” Mr Phua said.
“What each parish will need to contribute will be one or two committed volunteers willing to take on this ministry and who have the personal resilience to carry it through with the support of their priest and parish council.
“If the priest and the congregation are not educated and fully on-board with this programme then it will fail – if PWID are invited but don’t find a welcome, then we’ll never get them back.”
PAS was established in 1989 in response to parents who were seeking ways to enrich the lives of their sons and daughters with intellectual disabilities – they wanted opportunities for their children to be included in community life and valued for the contribution they could make to the local community.
PAS uses community volunteers to “advocate” or speak in favour of a person with an intellectual disability and it provides a unique type of advocacy that is based on one-to-one relationships: by pairing them with a catechist volunteer or “advocate” with whom they can develop a meaningful friendship, PAS also promotes spiritual development for those with intellectual disabilities.
Operating in 13 parishes of the Archdiocese of Perth, and with a network of 125 volunteers, the groups meet fortnightly to help each other.