Fundamental changes in both society and religious institutions are necessary in order for spiritual care to become a positive factor in personal support says Colin Griffiths, Lecturer, chool of Nursing and Midwifery, Trinity College Dublin.


The expression of people’s spirituality has traditionally been a feature of life in Ireland, with a very high level of weekly church attendance. Over the past decade there has been a decrease in that attendance, with more devotees of other faiths in Ireland’s increasingly multicultural society. The decline in traditional Christian ritual has been accompanied by a corresponding decline in the influence wielded by the churches in Irish life. But Ireland remains a deeply spiritual place. How does that spirituality contribute to holistic practice and person-centred care for people with intellectual disabilities?

Spirituality can be defined in secular terms as being related to culture, aesthetics, relationships and philosophy (Potter 2002). It is also concerned with giving expression to concepts such as the meeting of mind, body and spirit. Swinton (2002) defines spirituality as comprising three components: ‘the need to find meaning, purpose and fulfilment … in life suffering and death, the need for hope/will to live, the need for belief and faith in self, others and God’ (p. 31).

Not all commentators see spirituality in the broad terms that Swinton suggests. Treloar’s (2002) study of the spirituality of people with disabilities who belong to an evangelical Christian church see faith in God as central to the concept. (Treloar’s study was carried out in the USA, Swinton wrote from a UK perspective.)

Spirituality and health

An increasing body of knowledge suggests that the development of spirituality is important in maintaining personal physical and mental health and well-being. Treloar (2002) notes that a person’s beliefs can influence his or her response to life. She quotes John, a young man with cerebral palsy, who says that ‘one of the main things my faith has done, it’s kept me alive’ (p. 599). He says that it has helped him coped with the difficulty of having a disability. Indeed, faith seems to help many people with disabilities and their families to respond positively to life’s difficulties and also to understanding the disability itself-

The role of religious communities

Religious communities can facilitate the community involvement for people with intellectual disabilities; they can provide networks of friends and supporters, and enable people with disabilities to participate in social and personal relationships in the life of the church or spiritual group (McNair 1997). However, difficulties also exist. Some religious groups require clear statements of faith which people with intellectual disabilities may be unable to give (Swinton 2002); others present theological hurdles to accepting the full personhood of people with disability. Certainly there is little evidence that Christian churches engage fully with the issue of disability (Treloar 2002), perhaps because of the few references to disability in the Bible or to a general lack of knowledge of disability. While much support seems to be forthcoming from faith communities, this seems to emanate from individuals rather than from the theological roots of the different religions.

How do people with intellectual disability conceive their spirituality?

Swinton (2002) conducted interviews and focus groups with people with intellectual disability about their spiritual life. Many of them saw God in personal terms, conceived as a friend who provided support and understanding in the person’s life. Potter (2002) notes that many people with intellectual disability have a confidence in their relationship with God and an intuitive feeling for spiritual truths, whereas Treloar (2002) sees a relationship with God as bringing about healing acceptance and enabling coping. None of the studies reviewed here described how a humanistic non-religious approach to spiritual development might be of relevance to a person with an intellectual disability; neither was the role of other, non-Christian faiths considered.

The role of spirituality in the future for people with intellectual disability

The first lesson to emerge from this brief consideration of the literature is that recognition of the importance of a spiritual dimension to people with an intellectual disability seems to be of relevance to those who are concerned with the provision of holistic care. Secondly, religious institutions need to be encouraged to include people with disabilities in their life, and to further the search for meaning in relation to explaining and understanding disability (Treloar 2002). Swinton (2002) suggests that fundamental changes in both society and in religious institutions are necessary in order for spiritual care to become a positive factor in personal support. This represents another change that must be faced among all those now occurring in religious life in Ireland. It is also a chance for religious communities to offer a positive outreach to people with disabilities that can benefit both groups.


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