Religion and spirituality have been a part of almost every culture throughout history and have affected the lives of many individuals, and society in general. A multitude of studies deal with the influence of spirituality and religious beliefs on the personal development and well-being of people with physical disabilities and serious mental illnesses, since it is widely accepted that religious faith is an important source of hope, warmth, consolation, meaning, and purpose in life. It has been shown that the protective and beneficial effects of religious faith are particularly strong in people with diseases and disabilities. In particular, research has shown that religious beliefs stabilized the lives of people with physical disabilities, provided an interpretation of the disabilities they were experiencing and helped them cope with them.
Spirituality is now recognized as an important dimension in people’s lives, including those with Intellectual Disability (ID). ID is a condition with reduced or incomplete development, which does not allow the person to keep up with the social environment. It is diagnosed before the age of 18 and is characterized by significant constraints in both intellectual function and adaptive behavior which is manifested in conceptual, social and practical adaptive skills.
The inclusion of religion in their lives can help them fill the gap created by this disability. People with moderate or mild ID have the ability to feel the presence of God and can, to a greater or lesser degree, understand some abstract concepts about God, the Church and religion, if these concepts are explained or taught to them in a simple and comprehensive way.
Jean Marc Gaspard Itard, considered by many to be the father or Special Education, has shown that intensive, systematic intervention can greatly benefit a child who is considered incapable of learning. In Special Education, the purpose of every educational program is to support people with special educational needs at a physical, psychological, emotional, and social level; to develop their potential to the fullest extent possible according to their abilities; and, ultimately, to enhance their inclusion into the social environment under conditions of equality, freedom, security, and respect of their personality. That’s why activities in such programs must be experiential. Educational interventions of varied content can be implemented in people with disabilities. As a special education teacher, I conducted an experimental research of theological content in Greece with my research team. Its aim was to help them gain basic knowledge of the mystery of baptism in the Eastern Orthodox Church and its symbolism, so that they can gradually become active members of their religious community and build a supportive relationship with their parish priest, and to create the appropriate conditions for them to participate in their parish.
A quasi-experimental baseline design, with training and participant response to different conditions, was used to show the acquisition and generalization of the above knowledge. During the intervention, the representation of the Sacrament of Baptism was presented, setting a question for each important “point” of baptism and providing the answer. “The participants gained basic knowledge of the mystery of baptism in the Orthodox Church and of its symbolism, and generalized this knowledge in new situations and environments. More importantly, the participants created a compassionate relationship with their parish priest. At the same time, they were given the opportunity to gradually build their relationships with their parish community, and through this it was demonstrated once again that engaging with religion promotes socialization”.
It is, in short, shown that, if people with ID were to approach and follow religious values, teachings, and traditions, they may gradually further cultivate their religious beliefs, spirituality, and experiences with the transcendental. In this way, people with disabilities can gradually become active members of their parish community and create through these interventions a supportive relationship with the priest of their parish and the appropriate conditions for participation in it. Creating essential relationships with the religious community contributes to the socialization of these individuals. The Apostle Paul describes the Church as the body of Christ and notes that every human being is an integral part of that body, because every individual is given gifts of the Holy Spirit that will benefit the community.
The issue of integrating people with disabilities depends not only on these individuals, but also on the Christian community. The Eastern Orthodox Church is the means for a truly equal participation and integration into a non-discriminatory society. Inclusion includes, among other things, the orientation of social encounters, which can also appear and be cultivated in the daily parish life (liturgical rites, the mysteries, religious celebrations, etc.). It is plain therefore that the role of the Church is substantial. The basic prerequisite for achieving this goal is the acceptance and realization of inclusion as the cultivation, cohabitation, and cooperation of people with disabilities and individuals without disabilities, since the Church is not an ideology, but is mainly and above all life, an offering of life through philanthropy, entertainment, and exhilaration, albeit a substantial transformation.
If we therefore want to include people with ID in the Christian community, we must begin to behave and think collectively. With the physical participation of more and more people with intellectual or developmental disabilities in community life, schools, neighborhoods, jobs, recreational activities, and Church liturgical and other gatherings, the challenge of overcoming integration and the making of a transition to real social inclusion, is sure to become more and more evident.
For further information, see: Lappa, C., Fr. Anastasiou, I., Mantzikos, C., & Kyparissos, N. (2018).Teaching the Christian Orthodox Mystery of Baptism to Adults with Moderate or Severe Intellectual Disability. International Journal of Humanities and Social Science Invention, 7 (3), 64-74.
Christina Lappa is Post-PhD Researcher in Special Education at the University of Thessaly and Collaborating Teaching Staff at Hellenic Open University, Greece.
Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.