Association for Theological Education in Myanmar (ATEM) and Ecumenical Disability Advocate Network (EDAN) held a third workshop on Theology and Disability from 15th to 18th February2016 at the Bethany Theological Seminary, Insein, Yangon.
EDAN and ATEM held the first consultation on disability discourse in 2010. This consultation aimed at introducing disability discourse to Church leaders in the Baptist and Reformed Church as well as Representatives of ATEM. The second consultation which took place in 2012 focused on introducing disability discourse to the Myanmar Council of Churches’ members.
This third consultation was attended by 21 participants from various theological seminaries and schools in Myanmar. The opening worship was led by Rev. Dr. San Myat Shwe who was also the Vice President of ATEM and the Principal of Holy Cross College in Yangon. He shared about his time as a Chaplain of the Deaf School in Yangon whose population was mainly from the Buddhist Religion.
Participants were taken through the new WCC interim statement on disability “The Gift of Being: Called to be a Church of all and for all” by Dr. Samuel Kabue. The participants lauded the document which they said was very strong on the value for life and relationships. They suggested that there should be space for an Asian input into the document especially in the area of Cultural context, inter-scriptural reading of the Bible and integration of other religions on disability to make it more inclusive.
The participants also heard from various persons with disabilities under the topic of “Living with Disability in Public Space”by Mr. Obed Cung Bik, Mr. U Thein Lwin and Hleku. The Presenters gave the participants a glimpse on what it means to be a person with disability in Myanmar, the barriers that exist in the society that they live in and also some of the government’s initiatives that have discriminated on persons with disabilities. The Participants were surprised that Myanmar had ratified the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities(CRPD) on 7th December 2011 and had translated the Convention in Burmese language yet most of them had not seen it.
The Barriers to Inclusion and Disability and Human Rights a Churches’ response which was presented by Ms. Anjeline Okola took the participants through the various barriers that exist in the society that prevent persons with disabilities to actively participate as full members of the society. Persons with disabilities would like to live in the community with dignity and to achieve this, they need their rights to be enshrined in the laws of the country. The participants were also taken through the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) and they shared on the Myanmar Disability Law and an Act of Parliament regarding Education of Children with Disabilities.
Further, the meeting looked at a paper presented by Rev. Dr. Wati Longchar on Theology from Margin: Disability Perspective which challenged the participants on the need to have theology defined by those on the margins unlike the current case where theology had been defined by the rich and powerful. The paper on Re-imaging God for Inclusive Community: An Indigenous Perspective took the participants through an indigenous perspective which called on them to stop over emphasizing personal-relational images of God as these instead promote patriarchal, hierarchical and anthropocentric images of God. Christians, the author stated have constructed images of God which became a source of exclusion and marginalization of persons with disabilities and indigenous persons. The papers triggered very lively discussions and a suggestion made to publish them for a wider audience.
Challenges of Teaching Disability in Myanmar was expounded by Rev. Dr. U Tha Uke the managing director of Eden Centre for Disabled Children which caters for children with physical and intellectual disabilities: irrespective of race, religion or nationally. He had also taught Disability Studies at the Myanmar Institute of Theology for 7 years. He shared how together with Rev. Dr. Lal Tin Hre they developed the Curriculum for Bachelors in Theology and Masters in Theology for all the affiliate seminaries and schools of ATEM in 2011 but the main Theological Colleges in Myanmar such as the Myanmar Christian Institute of Theology and the Myanmar Institute of Theology did not take the course seriously and therefore the students didn’t enroll for it enthusiastically and finally the course became redundant.
Rev. Dr. Longchar shared with the participants on how the Senate of Serampore was able to introduce the Curriculum in their 52 colleges. He encouraged the participants to be proactive on doing research and writing papers on the subject to create interest among their students. In Serampore, they encouraged team teaching and also made the Course interdisciplinary which attracted more students to enroll in it. He also lauded the National Council of Churches of India which offered scholarships for students interested in studying for MTh and DMin on Theology. After much discussion on the issue, it was agreed that:
i. A reinvigoration seminar be organized by EDAN and Association for Theological Education in South East Asia (ATESEA) for Principals and Deans of Studies to remind them of the need to have the Course in their Institutions.
ii. To tackle the issue of lack of teachers teaching disability studies, ATEM will put aside one scholarship for a teacher from one of the seminaries to be trained on disability studies for the purpose of teaching.
iii. Awareness creation is needed to reach the other areas of Myanmar and not only in Yangon as has been the case.
iv. An incentive be given for students who take up the course to create interest and also look at ways to infuse some topics in the curriculum in the other Courses.
v. Form a Committee that will be fully mandated to popularize the Curricullum to theological seminaries and Schools.
vi. Set aside one of the Journal issues to include articles on disability.
As a Way Forward the participants requested for a writers workshop.