Recently, a Catholic church in Ireland uninvited a Kerala priest named Father Dominic Valanmanal from a public appearance he was scheduled to make in Dublin. Father Dominic had made derogatory remarks about autistic children, saying that because their parents do not live lives filled with the Holy Spirit, their children become like animals. The resulting uproar can be imagined. Kudos to the activists who did not let it go.
I am not any kind of expert to weigh in on churches, but am intimately familiar with similar unexamined bigotry in some Hindu community leaders’ and lay people’s minds. How could I not be. The love-hate of autism, and the unscientific theorizing about kids like mine, are palpable to me.
It is a knee jerk sort of piety that allows people to see autism as God’s blessing. Saintly, “extra beautiful” little angels whom God has especially anointed to show us the path to moksha. We always manage to center our own needs, don’t we, and not theirs? Unless we are also working overtime to address their practical needs from childhood into adulthood—healthcare, education, access to the public sphere, job skills training, employment opportunities, respite for caregivers, protection from/justice for sexual assault, and so much more, I do not think these spiritual viewpoints actually achieve anything, so please let’s not drag the disability community into discussions for the sake of saying something else entirely, or for self promotion.
In many poor countries where high birth rates and lack of access to reproductive rights (often due to these very religions having so much clout) are common, there can be a tendency to undervalue the disabled. While saying uplifting things about them, it is equally easy to dismiss their pressing needs, and see the disabled as a burden on the already beleaguered poor. So on that score, I can pretend to exonerate Father Dom. He is a product of his system. But that also means he is no better or worse than the people he leads, so why should his world view have a pulpit.
It is clergy in richer countries we must question more closely. Why do they not devote more energy and resources to educating themselves on how their pulpits can be forces of good for the disabled?
Let’s go backwards. Why are places of worship, religious services, and spiritual education so rarely disability friendly? The bar is set so low that when an exception arises, news of it is shared around and praised, but it does not seem to inspire other congregations to make permanent changes.
Ultimately, if clergy and congregations are unwilling to commit to real change in thought and practice, then they should not be invoking the disabled whenever they want to earn social justice points, or issue karmic warnings about what our future lives might be if we don’t behave righteously now. If you are going to exclude kids like mine from meaningful participation, then you had better hold yourself behind that line you have so firmly drawn, and stop using autism as a buzzword to mean whatever sounds sermon-worthy.
I am okay saying this about Hinduism, specifically: less jnana yoga, more karma yoga. If that doesn’t sound palatable, then autism talk needs to be decisively off the table. Until we perceive more humility and willingness to be educated, it is ludicrous for us to have faith in faith communities just because they claim to speak for us. Please, stop talking.