Thought for the Day - Catherine Pepinster - 17/08/2012
Newspaper obituaries are a useful window onto history and reading accounts of the life of the late politician Alf Morris this week reminded me just how different Britain was 50 years ago before Morris and fellow MP Jack Ashley championed the disabled. Until the late 1960s disability was something that was seen as essentially a private
misfortune. When I was a child you would often see outside shops models of little children in callipers holding out a collection box. They were objects of pity and seen as different.
Alf Morris altered all that, introducing with cross-party support legislation to make life easier for the disabled. But Morris didn’t just help improve facilities, mobility and access; he also helped change a mindset. Disabled people were not to be hidden from view but were as much part of society as the able-bodied. We’ve still a long
way to go, as recent stories about the harassment and bullying of people with special needs shows. But there has certainly been change,driven by a desire for social justice.
In the Christian tradition that desire for social justice has been inspired by the account in Matthew’s Gospel of how people will be judged by the way they treat others. Christ tells his followers that people will be blessed if they serve the vulnerable as if they are responding to God himself. “When I was hungry, you fed me” Christ
says, “When I was sick you cared for me, when I was in prison you visited me”.
It’s clear from the Gospels that at the time of Christ people with disabilities or disease were on the outside of society, and were often feared. An illness like leprosy or a disability put you on the margins. But Christ urged that the vulnerable should be drawn back into society, that the rest should walk alongside them.
And yet there’s still a danger with Christ’s call to visit the sick and feed the hungry that it will be interpreted as an invitation to bestow our help like Lady Bountifuls, to make a distinction between them and us. But Christ’s words must be read alongside his other urging too: to love one’s neighbour as oneself. Then feeding the hungry or caring for the sick is about giving people respect and dignity because we understand they are, indeed, just like us.
Alf Morris and Jack Ashley helped society make huge strides but they wouldn’t have wanted people to be complacent. The disabled might have been given more respect. But what about the elderly or those with dementia? They seem in sore need of an Alf Morris – and of society being reminded of Christ’s words too.