International Year of Disabled Persons

We, the Catholic Bishops of New Zealand call on all Catholics to provide a strong and positive Christian response to the International Year of Disabled Persons, 1981.

As New Zealanders we must totally endorse the call of the international community for increased awareness of the fact and consequences of human disability.

We recall that in his very first message this year, Pope John Paul endorsed the significance of the year, and on New Year's Day called for special attention to be given to the problems of the disabled. He compared the cost of military arms and the needs of disabled people: "If only a minimum part of the budget for the arms race were assigned for this purpose, important successes could be achieved and the fate of many suffering persons alleviated."

Vatican Document
The "Document of the Holy See for the International Year of Disabled Persons," published in April, is one of the most comprehensive statements from any source to mark the international Year of Disabled Persons. It goes deeply into the practical difficulties facing disabled persons, their families and communities. But it goes further, to emphasise the dignity and nobility of the human person as reflected in the disabled among us.

The document is a synthesis of Catholic thinking throughout the world, including New Zealand. It examines problems of disabled people from Christian moral and spiritual standpoints. It contains clearly defined principles and guidelines for action.

The philosophy on which we take our stand is expressed beautifully in the phrase: "The quality of a society is measured by the respect shown to the weakest of its members. "

Therefore, we are, in the full sense of the words, our "brother's keeper." We are at our strongest when we are concerned for and involved with the welfare of the weakest among us.

Value of Human Life
Believing that God, as revealed in the person of Jesus Christ, is the Father of all, we have no difficulty identifying each and every person as equally loved by God. This belief gives substance to our unshakeable faith in the dignity of man and in the unrepeatable value of each human life.

As the Vatican statement says, as its first principle: the disabled person is a fully human subject, no matter how severe the disabilities, with the corresponding sacred and inviolable rights.

We recognise and gratefully acknowledge the role and contribution of the National Committee for the Year of the Disabled in New Zealand. Their work is an example to us all and displays a depth of sensitivity, understanding and concern for the many disabling hurts that afflict so many of our brothers and sisters.

From this we clearly see the threads which unite us to one another, are drawn through every facet of life. Our weaknesses-no less than our strengths-colour and shape the fabric that is the community. As the Vatican statement says:

The disabled person must be helped to achieve living and working conditions that resemble the normal one as much as possible.

Disability affects not merely the disabled person but the entire community. Whether the disability be physical, mental or spiritual, outwardly visible or hidden from sight, generally known or entirely private, it is society itself not just the afflicted individuals that must own the affliction. The international community sets certain principles concerning disabled persons. These are contained in the Charter of the United Nations; the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; the Declaration of Social Progress and Development; the Declaration of the Rights of the Mentally Retarded; and the Declaration of the Rights of Disabled Persons.

Life in the Community
But our interest and concern for the disabled is not complete only by helping them adapt physically and psychologically to society. Our aim should be to create the conditions - the mentality, the legislation, the living facilities, the service, the work, the environment - which make it possible for the disabled person to participate in and enjoy the quality of life of the total community.

The document from the Vatican states it clearly:

the disabled person must be helped to take his or her place in society in all aspects and at all levels, as far as is compatible with his or her capabilities.

And again:

the disabled person must be more than tolerated. He or she must be integrated as fully as possible in the spheres of family life, the school, employment and, more generally, in the social, political and religious communities.

The road is long and difficult. A successful conclusion to our understanding presupposes a change in conscience. In addition, we must develop a practical, moral and spiritual attitude towards disabled people whatever their condition or situation. In this, the Church has a fundamental and unique role to play.

The Mystery of Suffering
Illness, pain, decay and death are part of the human condition. Separation from loved ones through any one of the innumerable barriers that disability can create, is especially difficult. While no suffering can be welcomed for its own sake it can lead us to a deeper communion with our loving, merciful God who, in his unfathomable wisdom, offers the fullness of life through the mystery of suffering. Church commitment to help the disabled person began with Christ himself. The many dedicated people and groups committed to the care of disabled persons testify to the reality of the message of Jesus: "Love one another as I have loved you. "

There is a place for institutions to provide the specialised care and treatment for many areas of disability. But by their very character institutions cannot be a substitute for the warmth and personal care that only a home and family environment can provide.

The document from the Holy See says Society must not permit the institutionalisation of the disabled where this encourages anonymity, depersonalisation or the lack of attention which the very dignity of the human person, Therefore, we must look at ourselves. As Christians we need to examine our consciences with the clear knowledge and conviction that there cannot be one Church for the "healthy" and one for the disabled in our community.

So, we stress that 1981 is the International Year of Disabled Persons, not for Disabled Persons. In one of its most pertinent sections the statement from the Vatican indicates that the response to the Year and to the problems of disability requires an effort not only from the fully capable but from the disabled people themselves.

The disabled person is not only a receiver, he or she must be helped to be a giver to their full potential. Unless you have experienced the problems involved in having a mentally retarded child, or of a person who has lost the use of his limbs or of living with another slowly dying of cancer, it is not easy to envisage the stresses imposed on a family in caring for such a member.

Obligations as Christians
Therefore, all of us, lay people, religious and priests alike, must reach out a welcoming hand to the disabled-child, adult or family-delicately and courageously to assure them that they are not alone.

We cannot proclaim and defend by words alone our obligations as Christians, and expect others to pay the price of doing, what in fact, is our duty. We must discover the specific gifts of each member of the Christian community and place them at the service of others.

We, therefore, call upon diocesan and parish pastoral councils, all the religious and secular organisations and prayer groups to dedicate themselves to the cause of the disabled.