Faith Matters

Open your eyes to disability this Christmas with L'Arche

The 'Through L'Arche Eyes' campaign is launched by the organisation's Belfast community this week. Picture by Hugh Russell

THE Belfast branch of L'Arche is appealing for people to don a pair of spectacles and look at learning disabilities from a new perspective this Christmas.

Grounded in the Christian tradition and welcoming to people of all faiths and none, L'Arche is an international network of communities where people with and without learning disabilities share life together.

In Ireland and Northern Ireland there are four communities: in Cork, Kilkenny, Dublin and, since 2001, Belfast.

The Christmas campaign - 'Through L'Arche Eyes' - aims to challenge misperceptions around people with learning disabilities.

"Sometimes when looking at learning disabilities, people tend to be short-sighted," said Diana Walsh from L'Arche.

"We have seen it in the past when asking for support. We have been told that learning disabilities are a problem in which we cannot have any real impact, and that not much can be done for people with learning disabilities, since they can't be helped, or cured, or saved.

"But this is not the problem. People with learning disabilities don't need to be cured because they are not sick; they don't need to be saved because they are not lost.

"We don't want fewer people with learning disabilities around us; they are a gift to our societies."

As part of the fundraising campaign, two pairs of glasses - which can be printed from the L'Arche website - have been designed as a symbolic invitation for people to see learning disabilities from a new perspective and challenge the stigma.

"The issue is not the disability; it's the way we look at it," she said.

"The real questions should be about inclusion; about personal encounters without prejudices; about the kind of societies we want in the future.

"Of course there is real impact when supporting causes like ours, which aim to create a more human society for all of us."

Key to L'Arche's work is the way that people with and without learning disabilities share life together; in family-like settings, volunteers and people with different levels of ability live, work and learn in community.

The vibrant L'Arche community in Belfast is based on the Ormeau Road.

As well as offering people opportunities for friendship, participation and belonging through projects such as Root Soup, In Other Words and Green Buds, L'Arche Belfast provides 24 hour domiciliary care and housing support services.

Scott Shively, L'Arche Belfast community leader, said that the organisation worked to "create places of belonging for some of the world's most vulnerable citizens".

"These spaces enable each person to live as a full citizen and to contribute their unique gifts to society," he said.

"We want more people to know about this wonderful work we do in Northern Ireland and around the globe."

L'Arche - which means 'ark' - was founded in France in 1964 by Jean Vanier and from one small house has grown today to include 139 communities in 37 countries.

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