EveryBody Has a Story

We have recently completed a project focusing upon the spiritual and religious development of people with an intellectual disability…

Research evidence suggests that they are often excluded from religious and spiritual activities. We have found, however, that they have an intuitive sense of their inner person and a powerful way of expressing this to others. It is often difficult to enter into effective relationship with people who have intellectual disabilities, due to language processing and psychological patterns, which can be different from mainstream society. Their lives tend to be void of the meaningful friendships that are necessary if one is to lead a full life. Our research suggests that they experience heightened loneliness, coupled with an urgency to narrate their life story, leaving them in a vulnerable, paradoxical position. This has left them frustrated, with heightened feelings of rejection and difference. We have discovered that religious practice, armed with a correct attitude and awareness of the positive contributions disabled people bring, has the capacity to provide a solution to the suggested paradoxical situation.

The research outcomes include a practical course which seeks to meet and develop spirituality, build self esteem, tackle loneliness and build communities where all people belong, no matter their ability or cognitive skills. This research has lead us to philosophical, psychological and theological issues of embodiment and empathy. We have thus, developed a deeper understanding of the human person, in its all it’s diversity, mind, body and spirit.

During our experience, as a Researchers for the University of Aberdeen, we have underlined a paradoxical situation within the life experience of people with an intellectual disability.

Approaching disability from the viewpoint of relational philosophy and an educative approach, which explores spiritual development through a relational model, we have discovered that people with an intellectual disability are not enabled by society and institutions to choose the kind of relationships, activities and people with whom they wish to relate.

This situation occurs for two different reasons:

1. People with learning disability often have differing language and cognitive skills. This could lead to barriers of communication and to possible inabilities to empathise or discover different forms of communication and language.

2. People with an intellectual disability can therefore; enter into relationships that are based on needs and not on will. This situation could create the need for authentic friendships. This neediness could place them in a vulnerable position.

Therefore, to enter into an effective agreement and an authentic relationship, one would need to develop new communication skills. This, coupled with empathy and a deeper understanding of the spiritual, inner self of people, will create a space for sharing life stories and a possible solution to the paradox.

To achieve this, a paradigm shift must occur:

From a culture of care to a culture of effective and authentic relationship, that is based on understanding and respecting difference. It is important that differences are not deleted but that they are accepted and respected within the human story.

Every action a human being undertakes has the potential to communicate information to another person or persons under the right circumstances. The greatest majority of humanity is able to competently communicate verbally. We very often do not consciously recognise and/or pay attention to the approximate 80% of human communication that is non verbal and is perceived by the visual sense and not the auditory.

We therefore very often listen and look but do not see. As a consequence, we ‘miss’ important communicative information and understanding. During the process of our research, we begin the very necessary journey of looking and seeing, so as to develop an empathic appreciation and understanding of how a person with an intellectual disability (ID) with limited or no verbal skills, communicates.

Armed with this empathic understanding and knowledge of an individual, we are now better informed and can begin to develop a ‘shared medium of communication’ (SMC) with that person. A SMC is the judicious use of communication practice, principals and methods that are understood by that person and their interactive partners.

Many professionals and others who work with or spend many hours in the company of individuals who present with a ID, develop this empathic approach to communication. The same are usually able to then develop and sustain the necessary SMC. This process is not so easy for the person who has not had the benefit of specialist training and/or long term exposure to, or experience of the ID person/s.

That being said there is ‘middle ground’ whereby an empathic, equal and humanistic situation in respect of a naturalistic SMC can develop between interactor and person with Learning Disabilities. It is the development of this situation that is most important for the success of achieving effective agreement.

However, our experience suggests that People with an Intellectual Disability have an intuitive sense of their inner being and an urgency to narrate their life story to others. The expression of one’s inner spirit, we have discovered, is fundamental to their psychological and spiritual wellbeing. It has also been evident that they experience a poverty of opportunity in finding places and people with whom they can express their spirituality, in a way that is both meaningful and authentic. One of the reasons that this poverty exists could be that, whilst some people may know how to achieve an effective agreement and practice a Shared Medium of Communication (SMC), they may not fully understand why Spirituality and Religious Practice are important for their lives. It may appear that religious communities are able to meet special needs within their particular settings and that facilitating attendance fulfils a duty of care. In turn we have found that religious communities may ‘understand why’ spirituality and religion are important but may not ‘know how’ to make their services accessible to People with Intellectual Disabilities. An outcome of our research has been the development of a practical resource/ programme, which seeks to create opportunities for the development of effective agreement and authentic, hospitable relationships. This practical course provides space for spiritual expression, builds self esteem, tackles loneliness and fosters communities where all people belong, no matter their ability or cognitive skills. Opportunities to engage in the life stories of people with disabilities therefore, leads to a spirituality ‘of being’ rather than ‘of mind’, ‘of presence’ rather than ‘of ability’ and provides an opportunity to be attentive to the other, reciprocal in exchange and to engage in a real, authentic encounter.