“You don’t need to feel sorry for me – but you DO need to accommodate me”: a provocation for Disability Pride Month

Content note: brief references to bullying; non-clerical abuse; psychosis. 

I have heard voices since I was 5 years old, but the voices I heard from ages 5 - 20 were not psychosis: it’s just the way my brain operates. I had no issues attending church, for example; I’d go regularly with my family pre-university and was part of my parish community. The voices, whilst always there, were mild and consistent in what they said. This all changed drastically when I began studying at the University of Oxford in 2007. My voices exploded and quickly evolved into something much more powerful than before. I was simultaneously struggling to keep myself safe, whilst having very vivid experiences of God, the Blessed Virgin Mary, and Satan - all inside the one same, small building. I struggled to fit into the Roman Catholic chaplaincy’s devout student community, but equally had no idea what to do or say in my college chapel’s Anglican evensong (I could have really done with SCM Connect!). Everything felt alien; bullying from students and staff alike during my first two years only compounded the feeling that I didn’t belong there – or anywhere, really.

Determined to find community and support, I approached the welfare services and fervently attended chapel services within College. I experienced the very best and very worst of Oxford’s pastoral care. Both polar extremes of this care (including non-clerical abuse) took place primarily within my college’s chapel. I’d grown up with the strong belief that churches were safe spaces: that nothing bad could happen to me in them: how wrong I was! My voices, mental health, and ability to attend church safely all very quickly unravelled due to the abuse I experienced, leading to a huge identity crisis. The Sunday obligation is a fundamental cornerstone of being a Roman Catholic – as someone who was given dispensation from this, where did that leave me? Could I still really count myself as part of my parish? Can one be a ‘proper’ Roman Catholic without attending church? Was I experiencing the divine, or am I just ‘mad’ – and are these two things actually different? These are all questions I struggled with daily, and for which there is very little support.

When the pandemic hit the UK and the March 2020 lockdowns began, the Church felt like an inconsolable mess. Suddenly, everyone in my parish, the UK, and the world, was in the position I’d been in for 9 years: desperately wanting to partake in Mass and receive the Eucharist but being physically unable to access church. It was a desperately sad situation for all, yet I could not feel any sorrow or sympathy: all I could feel was huge anger at the speed parishes moved to provide forms of online worship and community. They’d been able to do this speedily when everyone needed it, but what about when I had been left isolated, lost, and left behind? Where had the Church been then?

I’ve slowly come to realise that we – as a wider Church – don’t have proper frameworks for understanding disability, both in practical and spiritual terms. We don’t seem comfortable that God allows for disability and can use it for His glory – many believe it must either be a terrible thing that has nothing to do with God, or the direct result of ‘sin’. This leads to misunderstandings, poor pastoral guidance, and erasure of disabled people’s vocational and spiritual journeys and practices. We all need to do better. The Church doesn’t need to feel pity for me or validate my religious experiences – but it DOES need to accommodate me.

Written by Shanika Ranasinge. Shanika is a part-time Roman Catholic music PhD student at Royal Holloway, University of London.