June 1, 2015 Facebook Twitter LinkedIn

Story by Nicole Bullock 

King’s Professor, Dr. Pamela Cushing had the honor of attending the Templeton Prize ceremony in London, England on May 18th, 2015. At the ceremony Jean Vanier was presented the Templeton Prize in acknowledgement of all his efforts in enabling disabled individuals to succeed in society.                                            

Dr. Cushing has a distinct perspective on this Canadian icon as she has done ethnographic research with Vanier and the organization he founded, L’Arche, since 2000. Cushing was the lead writer for Vanier’s nomination for the prize. L’Arche, founded by Vanier in 1964, is an International Federation dedicated to the creation and growth of homes, programs, and support networks with people who have intellectual disabilities. King’s has had a Disability Studies program since 2012 where students take Liberal Arts-oriented courses that approach disability studies with this lens. Dr. Cushing is the founder and Director of the program.  Course topics range from the debate over ADHD medication, to the impact of Cochlear implant technology on deaf culture and rights…and of course, some readings from Jean Vanier.

“Vanier addressed why discrimination against disabled people is so pernicious and what he has learned from helping to build the L’Arche and Faith & Light communities about how all of society can benefit when disabled individuals are treated with respect and love.  His words carry a particular moral weight tracing to his half-century commitment to trying to live out his radical ideas.  I always think of Jean in light of novelist Timothy Findley’s line: “You are known only in what you do” (The Wars)” says Dr. Pamela Cushing.

Indeed – his lifetime of doing, or walking the talk, is what the prestigious Templeton Prize honored him for. As Dr. Jack Templeton wrote on Jean’s scroll: “Jean Vanier’s message and practice of love can change the world … [and] change the lives of countless individuals”. 

Vanier founded these communities in the early 1960’s in the wake of scandals about very poor treatment of people living with intellectual and developmental impairment. His humanitarian approach was in synch with the major shift in thinking at the time, away from large institutions and towards models with more dignity. While many people recognized those problems, Vanier stands out for what he did about them: he began to give talks around the world to raise awareness and funds for his proposed alternative approach – to create regular homes where people of different capacities can share life together and learn to care for and appreciate each other just as they are; with imperfections not in spite of them.

But his is not a muscular or triumphalist approach to dealing with the wrongs inflicted on this group. He nuances the ‘doing’ with a spotlight on simply being with people; the powerful learning and compassion that can emerge from simple, but sincere encounters with others who are different from you. One key message in his famous book, Becoming Human (CBC Massey lectures 1999) is what disabled people or others rejected by society need most - acceptance as they are, not mere ‘charity’. They, like all of us, blossom once they feel loved and welcomed. The Templeton foundation hopes that their gift of CDN $2 million will assist L’Arche to continue creating spaces for such encounters. The Templeton director’s daughter captured the feeling of many guests in the room when she said: “You inspire me, and each of us, to be a better person.”

In Social Sciences today, this idea is embedded in the Social model approach to thinking about impairment and disability that acknowledges bodily impairment, but demonstrates that the social stigma and economic disadvantage they experience is largely due to ways that society disables them through lack of supports or accessibility.

For more information on Disabilities Studies at King’s, visit:


Contact information: Pamela Cushing
Email: pcushin@uwo.ca
Telephone: 519-433-3491 Ex: 4469
Twitter: @CushingPamela
Facebook: Disability Studies at King’s https://www.facebook.com/groups/666365426789776/

Check out these Twitter hashtags: #LarcheCanada #larcheinternational