A handicap may be related to the body, senses or mental abilities but no one can claim that it disables the soul or the spirit. Despite the many efforts exerted and conferences held to help the handicapped, nothing can beat their own efforts to help themselves. A recent conference held earlier this month in Cairo proved that those with special needs are indeed capable of organising and managing a conference to tackle their issues and concerns. And it naturally follows that they are themselves able to figure out answers to their problems.
A first step
The conference was held from 6 – 8 December by the Ecumenical Disability Advocates Network (EDAN) in Egypt, which is affiliated to the World Council of Churches (WCC) under the motto “Let God’s work be manifest in him”. The clause borrows from the words of Christ in the Gospel of St John, chapter 9, when He was introduced to the man who had been born blind. Jesus was asked “Did this man sin or his parents?” and He replied: “Neither hath this man sinned nor his parents, but that the works of God should be made manifest in him”.
The conference was held with the aim of expanding EDAN’s work in Egypt, and offering those with special needs the opportunity to assess the various services churches offer them and define the challenges which hinder them from actively participating in the different services and activities in churches. In her opening word Sister Ruth Iliya, coordinator of EDAN in Egypt, affirmed that EDAN aims at utilising the efforts for better accommodation of the handicapped in churches to spearhead similar efforts in the entire community.
Church of all and for all
More than 50 persons with special needs from Egypt participated in the conference. Several NGOs active in challenging disability also took part, including al-Nardine Centre for the deaf, al-Nabta Association, the Dutch association Dorcas Aid International, and Dar al-Kitab al-Moqaddas (The Holy Bible House) which distributed Bibles to suit various disabilities. Father Antoun Francis of the Coptic Catholic Church expressed how the handicapped, through EDAN, can unify the Church in an excellent cause. “The handicapped spread love and reveal God’s work in them, Safwat al-Bayadi who heads the Evangelical Church in Egypt said.
Father Anastasi al-Samueeli who is responsible for the services to the handicapped in the Coptic Orthodox Church, commended EDAN saying that it worked to unify the efforts of all churches to help those with special needs. The interim statement “A Church of All and for All”, translated into Arabic, was distributed, and a documentary on launching EDAN in the Middle East was screened.
Lectures were delivered and discussions conducted on issues of importance to the handicapped such as “Accepting the other”, “The handicapped in church”, “The international treaty for supporting rights of the handicapped”, and “The handicapped and ecumenical work” given by Mounir Ghayes, bishop of the Episcopal Church.
In several workshops the handicapped discussed the challenges they face in churches and concluded with recommending proposals that would help solve many of the problems they frequently encounter in church. They suggested equipping churches with ramps and elevators, increasing publications in Braille, and having a person familiar with sign language translate church services to the deaf-mute. They also demanded adding studies related to the handicapped in religious and theological institutions, and in classes of preparing ministers. But most of all, they demanded that congregations should be familiarised with and made aware of disability challenge, so that people with special needs would be accepted and aided by the church community.