The Place of Faith in the Lives of Learners with Disabilities in Primary Schools

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Published on International Journal of Social, Politics & Humanities
Publication Date: May 15, 2019

S’lungile K. Thwala, Abahle Thwala & Hlobsile Magagula
Senior Lecturer, Department of Educational Foundations & Management, University of Swaziland
Librarian Assistant, University of Swaziland
Lecturer, Ngwane Teacher Training College, Nhlangano

Journal Full Text PDF: The Place of Faith in the Lives of Learners with Disabilities in Primary Schools (Study in Swaziland).

The purpose of the study was to explore the place of faith in the lives of learners with disabilities in primary schools in Swaziland. The study employed qualitative research methods; where a phenomenology design was used to investigate the experiences of the learners. Through a purposive sampling procedures a total of 48 participants in three special schools in Manzini, Hhohho, and Lubombo regions were selected. The participants were (n=19) males and (n=29) females. Data on learners’ experiences was collected through focus group discussions, individual interviews and document analysis. Data were analysed using content and constant comparison analysis. Excerpts were used to support findings. Findings suggest that faith plays a key role in the lives of learners with disabilities. The learners shared perceptions of their disability in the context of their faith, highlighting affirmation and acceptance of their disability. It was recommended that families, faith communities, schools and the Ministry of Education and Training offer spiritual support to learners with disabilities to become resilient and cope with their situation.

Keywords: Disabilities, faith, learners, religion, resilience & spirituality.

Children with disabilities are one of the most marginalized and excluded groups in society. They face daily discrimination in the form of negative attitudes, lack of adequate policies and legislation; they are effectively barred from realizing their rights to healthcare, education, and even survival (UNICEF, 2017). In addition, Children with disabilities and their families constantly experience barriers to the enjoyment of their basic human rights and to their inclusion in society. Their abilities are overlooked, their capabilities are underestimated and their needs are given low priority. A disability may be defined as any physical, sensory, neurological, intellectual, cognitive, or psychiatric condition that can impact on a person’s lifestyle and or everyday functioning .The human rights approach to disability has led to a shift in focus from a child’s limitations arising from impairments, to the barriers within society that prevent the child from having access to basic social services, developing to the fullest potential and from enjoying her or his rights (Makoelle, 2014). This is viewed as the heart of the social model of disability.The social model viewed disability as a form of social oppression.
The field of disability studies has paid scarce attention to religion. Literature related to religion and Christianity was predominantly available (post-2000), for example, it claims that children with disabilities are part of God’s family; nevertheless people do not always treat them as part of God’s family. The future of the church is determined by the number of children and youth the church has, and nearly twenty percent of adolescent live with disabilities, yet far too often they are marginalized within the church (Gunnestad & Thwala, 2011). Hence the need for the church to identify and meet the needs of children with disabilities in the same manner it attends to the necessities of other children. Carter (2013) added that faith communities should welcome and affirm people with disabilities in worship, fellowship and leadership, not only because it is the right thing to do, but to embrace everyone’s gift in fellowship. Interacting with children with special needs will serve as a highly useful and inspiring resource for anyone in the community of faith.
Religious faith, beliefs, and activities are important aspects of the lives of most children in Swaziland. A substantial body of literature exists in the social and behavioral sciences on associations between religion, spirituality, and well-being in adulthood. Despite the obvious importance of religion in the lives of children and adolescents, considerably less attention has been paid to associations between religiosity and well-being prior to adulthood. Hence the purpose of this study was to explore the place and practices of faith in the lives of primary school learners with disability in Swaziland, and how they view their disabilities within the context of their faith. It also sought to find out the relation between faith and resilience in the lives of children with disabilities when faced with challenges.

2.1 The understanding of faith
Faith is defined as an acceptance of certain religious doctrines (Creamer, 2008). It is an essential element in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. In Hinduism and Buddhism, it is an attitude of devotion that opens a gateway to spiritual practice; while in Christianity it is having trust in God (Swinton, 2001a). Faith is also seen as the spiritual identity within the person, including for example, their relationship with God as well as beliefs about God. Allen (2010) emphasized the importance of hearing the right information, which will determine one’s belief system thus according to Allan exposing oneself to God’s word is imperative. In the broad scope of the spiritual life, we see faith not as something you have but as something you are in a relationship with the Supreme Being. Allen (2010) suggests that it involves an awareness of and an adaptation to God’s presence in our everyday experiences. Practicing faith, then, is like developing any relationship; one has to give it time and attention. It requires a person to see, hear, feel, and constantly remember his partner — God, and have confidence in the relationship’s viability, even when facing mysteries, doubts, and paradoxes, trust in this faith, even to the point of risking your life on it (Swinton, 2001b).
On the other hand religion refers to the community of people who share similar beliefs and who work together to provide both support for going deeper into those beliefs and accountability for living up to those beliefs. Turner (2004) also suggests that religion changes the lives of individuals with disabilities; it makes them strong and exciting. Religion can be one way of expressing a spiritual need. Religions “provide shared rituals, narratives, symbols and guidance through scriptures, prayer and modes of social support” (Swinton, 2001b). People within a person’s religious community can also be useful members of the person’s circle of support. There is increasing research evidence that shows that religious expression can have positive effects on physical and mental health (Swinton, 2001b). Religious expression and religious connections can also be an important and positive part of the lives of families with a person with learning disabilities.
In the lives of most Swazi people, African religion and Christianity are considered to be the most important thing in their lives; Gunnestad (2006) observed that more than one third of Swazis attend services once a week also indicated that 90% of the population in Swaziland believe in the Christian faith, meaning they believe in God and view prayer as a way of telling God all their problems. They also consult with ancestors and traditional healers. Thus the silenced voice for children with disabilities becomes the protective factor and offers hope. He also pointed out that prayer has proved to be an important coping strategy for children at risk. Collectively, prior studies (Poston & Turnbull, 2004; Gunnestad, 2003 & Carter 2007) indicate that religious identities, congregational involvement, and spiritual expression as having considerable importance in the lives of people with disabilities, just as they do for adults without disabilities. For all children to grow and develop holistically, it is important that they also have a strong spiritual upbringing. Carter (2007) asserts that people with disabilities have a long relationship with faith communities. Religious expression is a fundamental human right, and can have important health and lifestyle benefits.
Spirituality and the expression of that spirituality bring meaning to many people’s lives. Swinton concurs that belonging to a faith-based community is one of the most common ways to engage in spirituality with others. According to Gunnestad and Thwala (2011) most children with disabilities affirmed personal prayer as a primary avenue of spiritual expression of their lived experiences. Prayer is described as individual conversation with God. Individuals use different forms of prayer, like praying out loud, quiet prayer and individual prayer. They also often pray when facing a tight situation. Swinton (2004) state that, beliefs and behaviours are seen as makers of faith and spirituality in people living with disability. Some children believe in one true God. The practices through which faith is expressed include reading scriptures and engaging in Bible studies. Giving to others, forms part of the Christian principles, while participating in religious activities within their congregation is another avenue of spiritual expression.
Children with disability like all other children have an understanding of the rite of passage as a ritual, making transition from one status to another, such as baptism, communion, and confirmation. A social connection within the faith community is understood as making friends, participating in games, outings and other activities in the local congregation. Most of their church friends hold a significant part in the lives of children with disabilities. The primary form of spiritual expressions includes, serving within the congregation, through ushering, greeting and singing in the choir to name a few. Serving others is also important in expressing faith formations (Gunnestad, 2003)

2.2 Spirituality, religion and disability
Conventionally, we tend to use words like, “faith”, “spirituality”, “belief” and “religion” interchangeably and, generally speaking, there isn’t anything wrong with that. But it may be interesting to know that for those who study the psychology of religion, these words do have different meanings. Most researchers and practitioners (McAlpine, 2009; Canda, 2001; Gaventa, 2001; Zhang & Bennet, 2001) contend that there is a difference between spirituality and religion. For psychologists of religion, the term “spirituality” represents both the things on which a person focuses his or her faith (e.g., God, church, nature, etc.) and the things he or she does to try to make a connection with those things (prayer, sacraments, hiking). In other words, spirituality represents the paths a person’s faith (as defined above) travels as it seeks meaning, purpose, and significance. There are hundreds other studies in fields of health, mental health and social work that point to the role that religious and spiritual belief and practices play to resilience in people who experience illness or disabilities (Canda, 2001). Views of illness and disability are intertwined with religious or spiritual beliefs; they suggest that religion serves three functions for people who are ill: (a) provides a framework to make meaning of their illness, (b) provides practical resources, and (c) provides hope. Spirituality, specifically faith in God’s will, can lead to positive acceptance of disability. This discussion confirms the importance of faith among learners living with disability to thrive in their everyday life.
A study by Carter (2016) in United States of America among children with intellectual and developmental disability (IDD) and their families in congregational life revealed that congregational involvement and spiritual expression can hold considerable importance in the lives of people with IDD, just as they do for people without disabilities. The study suggests that supporting young people with disabilities and their families to experience a high quality of life is a shared commitment of both special education services and national policy. In a similar study by Carter, Kleinert, LoBianco, Sheppard-Jones & Tyree, (2015) on the intersection of faith, flourishing, and disability to understand the place and prominence of faith and its contribution to thrive, the results showed that faith has an important role to play in the lives of children with disabilities. To be truly part of their faith community; to experience belonging within their church gave them satisfaction.

2.3 The coping strategies used by learners with disability
Levine (2008) asserts that for many Christians, the mental process of prayer can help with emotional and intellectual adjustment. “Religious support can be a stable coping strategy” praying for or praying together expresses emotional support” to people with challenges According to Carter (2016), faith is a strong driving force in human beings. It is connected to trust, to expect good things. Since hope is related to situations where the outcome is unsure, it is rather related to what one believes. It helps people to not give up in difficult situations. There are, however, some negative indications, including: expressions of guilt, thoughts that families are being punished by God, and that some members of organized religious groups do not assist or provide help to their members with disabilities. The literature also purports that many people believe that a child with a disability is a punishment sent by God. However, there are studies which reject this view and suggest that parents view both the church and faith as supportive (Lundeby & Tossebro, 2008). Evangelical Christian affirms that trial and difficulty contribute to spiritual challenge, reliance on God, and strengthened faith in God. The spiritual beliefs stabilize the lives of people with disabilities; thereby providing meaning for the experience of disabilities these conflicting ideas challenged the researchers to explore the importance of faith and resilience in children with disabilities.
Swinton (2001a) identified two resilient factors which are significant in people who are experiencing adversities which are faith and hope. Resilient faith is a quality of faith that is able to see us through trouble, temptation and trials and even come through stronger. Resilience is the ability to cope with stress and adversity and bounce back to a previous state of normal functioning, or using the exposure to adversity to produce a “steeling effect” and function better than expected. Resilience is a process and not an individual trait that some have and others do not have. Some studies (Gunnestad, 2003; Swinton, 2001; Gunnestad & Thwala, 2011; and McAlpine, 2009) indicate that resilient people think differently. They have a set of skills – sometimes learned, other times innate that allow them to persevere, manage stress and triumph in the face of challenges. Gunnestad (2006) views resilience as the act of rebounding or springing back after being stretched or recovering strength, spirit, and good humor. In clinical terms “resilience” is reserved for unpredicted or markedly successful adaptations to negative life events, trauma, stress, and other forms of risk. Religious faith is clearly a major factor promoting resilience and has helped people overcome the adversities they face (McAlpine, 2009).
Religion can have a great impact on children living with disability. It can be a source of vulnerability or resilience. Gunnestad (2003) also observed that during times of displacement, relocation, rapid change, economic collapse and hardship, religiosity and churchgoing can persist and provide many with a sense of security. Disability, therefore can lead young people to feel ashamed, isolated and anxious, further affecting their relationships with family, friends and social networks (Allen, 2010). Moreover, given the challenges that many children with disabilities face, it is inevitable that faith becomes their protective factor which enables them to strive in crisis.
As stated above we view spiritual wellbeing and resilience as working hand-in-hand, these are shaped by relationships with family, friends, school, faith tradition, communities and places of work, and all play a role in informing a young person’s sense of efficacy and worth, esteem and confidence. Parents, early childhood educators, and other adults try to keep children safe by preventing stress and trauma, this is not always possible. Adults can, however, promote resilience in young children by fostering protective factors that can safeguard the negative effects of stress and trauma. Resilience helps children overcome adversity with courage, skills, and faith Grotberg, (2009). Developing this capacity relies on protective factors within individuals as well as in the family and community. Shama & Hopkins, (2013) observe that support from family and friends has been crucial to many confronting challenging circumstances