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‘Exciting and creative’ outcomes a highlight of disability conference

Victoria’s Public Advocate, Colleen Pearce, spoke about the reforms needed to ensure people with disability and mental health challenges could lead flourishing lives.


Creative and innovative thinking featured highly at a recent conference where the spotlight centred on exploring more inclusive and welcoming approaches for people with disabilities and mental health issues in the Church.

Box Hill Corps in Melbourne hosted the one-day event titled ‘Welcoming and Inclusive: Actions for Churches in response to people with disabilities and health issues’ that explored theological perspectives on disability and mental illness, as well as workshops on neurodivergence, invisible disability, navigating government support and issues of mental illness in the justice system.

And it was far from a pedestrian event where people just sat and listened.

Thought-provoking and lively discussions were the order of the day for the 60 participants from different denominations and community-based organisations, along with engagement in an array of interesting workshops, being inspired by guest speakers, and embarking on conversations centred around practical approaches to further include people with disabilities and mental health issues into the Church.

“There was lots of fruitful conversation around opportunities and ways that we can be more inclusive of people with disabilities and people experiencing mental health issues, and to learn from each other,” said Joseph Pinkard, The Salvation Army’s National Disability Inclusion Lead.

“Obviously, there’s a Royal Commission going on at the moment into violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation of people with disability, and an ongoing conversation about the NDIS. So, it’s very front of mind in the Australian society, and the churches are part of that conversation, I guess, around how do we continue to be a place of welcoming and belonging for people with disabilities.

“It’s going to be an ongoing area of attention in mainstream Australia.”

Disability Inclusion Lead, Joseph Pinkard (left), Major Christine Pickens, Major Dr Catherine Spiller, and Captain Penny Cooper, all took part in the Welcoming and Inclusive conference.

Joseph added that for the Church to remain relevant, it needed to intentionally consider including people with disabilities.

“I think there’s generally an attitude of welcome in all churches, but sometimes there’s value in being more intentional about including people with disabilities because sometimes there are barriers to participation that we’re not aware of,” he said.

And the barriers?

Some were visible and practical, others more subtle. It might be like a lack of a ramp, inaccessible worship service space, or church building. However, some could be more subtle, such as low expectations of people with disabilities about their ability to contribute.

“Sometimes there are unintentional barriers to participation that can often be around someone’s intellectual capacity and the expectation that maybe someone can retain or respond to information that’s presented at church,” Joseph said.

“Maybe the way we communicate is also a barrier in that we mainly communicate in spoken word and written word. It would be beneficial if we could think about how we can maybe reduce and sometimes remove those barriers by becoming more aware of them, and also think about how do we adapt what we are doing to be more inclusive.

One innovative and practical example highlighted at the conference gained much people’s attention.

Major Dr Catherine Spiller addressed the conference about how congregations could be more inclusive for people with disabilities and mental health issues in the Church.

Led by Major Dr Catherine Spiller, the project at Mooroolbark Corps (Vic.) focused on how congregations could be more inclusive and break down barriers. It encompassed intentionally gathering and reflecting on how they ran a worship service on a Sunday and what opportunities existed for people with disabilities, particularly people with intellectual disabilities, to participate in a worship service and what may be things to tweak or adapt to make it more inclusive and everyone could participate in the worship space.

The outcomes were both exciting and creative.

They included keeping congregational responses short and the same in the call to worship, sometimes adding key word signs to the line, repeating the themes in the liturgies they wrote and using visual imagery such as artistic artworks.

“Our church as a whole has benefited as we have all been able to participate in worship in new ways,” Catherine said. “We have been delighted to see the members of our congregation with disabilities take up the invitation to participate.”

Not only has practical work been happening in the space, but also some attitudinal changes.

Major Christine Pickens, of Eva Burrows College, has undertaken some key work around mental health first aid training.

Joseph said her work had been really informative because the training had helped provide a baseline level of knowledge about mental health and mental illness.

“This can be really helpful in churchgoers’ understanding what mental illness is and what are the kind of practical ways that we can respond and support people who are having mental health issues or challenges,” he said.

“Because generally speaking, churchgoers want to support, and congregations want to be welcoming and supportive. But sometimes there is a lack of knowledge or a lack of awareness about what is going to be helpful for someone who has mental health challenges.”

Christine also contributed to a plenary session at the conference exploring the question of what role the Christian community played in welcoming and including people with disabilities and mental health issues, while Victoria’s Public Advocate, Colleen Pearce, spoke about the reforms needed to ensure people with disability and mental health challenges could lead flourishing lives.


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