Catholics consider God's vision for Paralympic legacy

The church and the world must move from inclusion to belonging in its understanding of the unique place of people with disabilities, says one university professor.

Professor John Swinton, of the University of Aberdeen, was addressing a conference held by the Catholic Church of England and Wales to explore disability in the Christian experience.

He challenged the Church to be a place of belonging for all people and reject the traditional approach to disability that focuses on a person’s vulnerability.

“Inclusion is no longer enough”, he said. “To be true to the Gospel means ensuring that everyone has a place where they belong and are not merely included, where they are welcome at the heart of a community, where they are appreciated and deeply missed when not present.”

Around 160 people attended the conference, entitled "Everybody has a place."

The conference was joined by representatives of the Knights of Columbus from the US, who talked about their work with physically disabled people in Haiti and their sponsorship of the Haitian amputee football team, Team Zaryen.

They premiered their film, Healing Haiti’s Children, during the conference, which showed how football is being used to help adults and children in Haiti affected by the 2010 earthquake.

Hundreds of people had to have amputations as a result of the injuries they sustained in the earthquake.

The film demonstrates how football is helping them to regain social status in a country where being disabled carries a social stigma.

Theologian Dr Pia Matthews said that disabled people are "more likely to be seen as an object" and that some "build shells to protect themselves".

She warned that while many disabled people seek companionship, they suffer from loneliness.

Even if they have companions, she said there could still be loneliness when the relationship "ends up being another objectivisation".

Cristina Gangemi, disability consultant to the Catholic Church in England and Wales, said: "The Paralympics show us what Christ asks all of us to do, to see a person regardless of their human form in all its potential and placing that person into a society in which the disability disappears."