March 13, 2015 Facebook Twitter LinkedIn

King’s faculty in Disability Studies, Dr. Pamela Cushing, will be travelling to London, England in May to be on hand when Jean Vanier of Canada receives the 2015 Templeton Prize in recognition of his advocacy work and his reflections on the importance of helping the vulnerable. The Templeton Prize is one of the world’s most generous annual awards. It honours people who have made “exceptional contributions to affirming life’s spiritual dimension.” Past winners include the Dalai Lama, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and McGill University philosopher Charles Taylor. The $2.1-milllion (Canadian) prize money will go to  L'Arche and Faith and Light, the non-profit, ecumenical organizations Vanier founded to serve and share life with people with disabilities.

Dr. Cushing was a lead writer of the nomination of Vanier for the award. She has been working on the nomination, with two other colleagues at L’Arche, since 2011. Dr. Cushing focused her PhD research on L’Arche communities in 1999 at the time when Vanier gave the CBC Massey lectures on 'becoming human' to sold out audiences. She co-developed a week-long retreat for L’Arche community members to craft an Anthropology of L’Arche with Vanier and Prof. J. Sumarah. A 100-page internal report and related magazine articles were written from it.

“I found many things at L’Arche, but a central one was how in the right cultural setting, typical people can be taught how to conceive of impairment, difference, and people with intellectual disability in diverse new ways.  It's not about thinking "everyone's great" or pretending the disability doesn't exist - it is about facing those things with the honest realization that we are all different, and all have areas of imperfection and fragility even though some of us can hide them better,” says Dr. Cushing.

Her work with L’Arche, and Vanier, has continued for another 15 years including consulting on media and websites, workshops and lectures, and collaborations with King’s students and the communities. She also  assisted with the development of Intercordia, a non-profit that works to send Canadian university students to other communities around the world to create relationships of mutuality across difference, based on the same philosophy as L'Arche. 

In writing the Templeton Prize nomination, Cushing & her collaborators analyzed Vanier’s many ideas, projects and books, in order to discern what were the most salient aspects of his work for the goals of the Templeton prize. “The prize is the equivalent of the Nobel Prize in religion, since that is the one category that Nobel does not address,” says Dr. Cushing.

“The nomination was centred around three important questions he addresses which speak to the prize's emphasis on efforts to serve humanity through the marriage of science and religion.  Given the accent on science,  we proposed  that the L'Arche communities went beyond platitudes about how we ‘ought to’ treat people differently, and instead they were a kind of  real life experiment in what it takes to actually  change attitudes, open hearts, and build mutual relationships across devalued differences.  As Allport and other civil rights researchers will tell you, this is no simple task. We averred that Jean Vanier began with radical ideas about how to change the inhumane treatment of people with intellectual disability and those were significant in themselves but he didn’t stop there. He invited people with disability and those that cared about them to start to imagine something different – to imagine what social justice might look like.   Like Martin Luther King and other faith-based leaders, one of his great gifts has been his ability to hold up a positive alternative vision, that is rooted in the Christian idea of the beloved community, and then to invite diverse people to find their own way to enact that vision. – Like any great thinker,  his ideas are agile not rigid, and his leadership is generous not controlling.” she says.    

Vanier founded the L'Arche communities for people with intellectual & developmental disability in 1964  in France and Canada in the midst of the broader de-institutionalization movement that swept Europe & North America. Inspired by the Beatitudes’ idea of mutuality and respect for all humans, whatever their gifts and fragility, and his PhD research on Aristotle and relationships, he worked with others with and without disability to create the first few homes in France and Canada in that spirit of breaking down barriers that separate us from people who are different than us.  “His central focus on the importance of mutually respectful relationships between so-called 'staff’ and ‘client' was very radical at the time, and continues to be a fruitful and challenging area of innovation for all L’Arche members” says Dr. Cushing. “I am so thrilled for him and L’Arche to win the Templeton Prize and honoured to be able to research and share their work with others in our King’s classes and in public talks.”

Dr. Cushing founded Disability Studies at King’s in the Department of Interdisciplinary Studies. Students in this program learn a variety of alternative ways to imagine disability and how to enhance inclusion and engagement of people with disability.