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Americans with Disabilities and the Church

2010 July 23

This month marks the 20th anniversary of the landmark Americans With Disabilities Act, signed into law by President George H.W. Bush on July 26, 1990. It seems a bit strange when you think about. It has only been for the past twenty years that people with disabilities have been guaranteed fundamental civil rights in our country. Granted, it has only been within the past century that women and other minorities have been assured of those rights as well. And of course we all know how often those rights are denied or ignored, and that there are groups in America who have yet to be legally given such basic rights at all. But seriously, twenty years ago many disabled people could not physically enter most buildings, ride public transportation, attend mainstream schools, or not be denied a job simply because they used a wheelchair. There were no signs saying “Able People Only,” but the entire world was set-up to keep the disabled on the outside.

Sad thing, even as a disabled person the only reaction I ever heard about ADA was negative. People complained about the hassle of making space for the disabled. They said it was unfair that the disabled were being given special privileges (yes, seriously people were stupid enough to say something like that). And, most of all, they complained about the cost. And being in the church world, where I heard that complaint most often was from churches. Now I understand that churches often don’t have a lot of money, and to add another few hundred thousand onto a renovation budget to be ADA compliant is difficult. A church I was at once attempted to renovate their sanctuary to fit in more seating, but in the end we lost seats because of the ramp we had to put in to make the stage accessible. It was hard and forced the church to rethink where the money was to be spent, which of course led to some choice words being said about the “liberal nonsense of the ADA.” But in truth, I had to wonder why the church wasn’t the one out there doing whatever they could to include the disabled – even without being forced to by law. Jesus went out of his way to be with the disabled in his society, the church could at least do the same.

Where this gets confusing for me is the intersection of disabled people and worship. Straight-up, there is a lot that churches do in worship (especially in more experimental experiential worship) that is just plain inaccessible to the disabled. There have been a number of times at my current church where I have just sat quietly in my seat because whatever worship activity we were doing would have been impossible to do with one hand. And I always cringe a bit when we do active things, or create art, or meditate on a film and exclude the wheelchair users and the blind in our congregation. I similarly don’t wish to exclude the say, kinesthetic or visual learners in the church, but it sometimes feels as if there is no awareness of how a disabled person could enter into the worship experience. As a church have we forgotten how to go to the lengths of cutting open a roof and lowering our disabled friend in through the ceiling just so they could meet Jesus?

So as we celebrate these twenty years, I think it should be as a reminder of how far we still have to go in our culture and in the church. There are still churches that ban the disabled from serving as priests. And there are churches that see disability as a result of sin or of a lack of faith in the Lord to heal. I’ve been told to just have enough faith and the Lord will grow my arm, or to at least look forward to having two perfect arms in heaven. Disabled people need to be included in worship, but first, we need to be accepted as who we are. Not as people to be pitied or to be cured, but as children of God created the way God wanted us to be. We want to be included in community not because a law forces us to be put up with, but because the church desperately wants to love us and desires to hear our voice.

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26 Responses leave one →
  1. July 23, 2010

    Just as the man who was on a pallet was blocked from entering, so does the church… but just as the man’s friends who cut a hole in the roof did, so too the friends of the disabled. I think disability is too far out of the average church goers thought process to consider, at least not until a hole in the roof is made. Now, once lowered down to the assembly things change in the pew, often in a pretty huge way. Its just the entrance that is the issue… and such often requires fairly detailed knowledge that friends have, where as folks in the pew may often try to do the right thing, but due to lacking knowledge crash and burn. Its the same with the ADA legislation… some of the guidelines which were written were so far out there and impractical, lots of money got spent, and it was wasted, as what was created was non-functional.

    Ultimately, what I’m saying is it takes folks to get their hands dirty and engage, be the friends cutting the whole in the roof… aggregate one size all calls from a remote location often times dont work out too well. If one gets to know someone, almost always there is a way to make things happen… and it can take a number of iterations too.

  2. July 25, 2010

    Thank you for sharing this perspective with us Julie. Often times disabilities are not visable and then we, sadly, are even more intolerant and insensitive. I have four dyslexic children. When asked to read Bible passages aloud they have at times struggled to comply and at times refused. Either way they been treated poorly by leadership–for their lack of speaking up and being clear or for their unwillingness to submit. Some of this stuff is crazy making.

  3. July 25, 2010

    Thank you for sharing this perspective with us Julie. Often times disabilities are not visable and then we, sadly, are even more intolerant and insensitive. I have four dyslexic children. When asked to read Bible passages aloud they have at times struggled to comply and at times refused. Either way they have been treated poorly by leadership–for their lack of speaking up and being clear or for their unwillingness to submit. Some of this stuff is crazy making.

  4. July 25, 2010

    Sorry for the double submission. I went backwards to correct a word I left out and didn’t realize it would keep the original as well.

  5. July 26, 2010

    This topic (people with disabilities) has been on my mind lately, but not because of the ADA anniversary. We just found out that my wife has cerebral palsy. After 50+ years, one would think we would have known this long before, but it was never diagnosed even though the signs were there all along if one looked carefully. (Some examples: her feet stopped growing at about age nine, so they’re very tiny and they are two sizes apart. Plus, she always had trouble with balance–even when she was little, before her feet stopped growing.) It hasn’t been particularly disabling for her, but the neurologist told her that it could cause her mobility problems in the future. We’re just grateful to God that she has been able to accomplish all that she has done.

    I have to include my schools’ ADA policy in all syllabi. I know that the ADA has been a boon to students with disabilities. I’ve had several students who needed accommodations in the classroom. Most have been hearing-impaired who needed sign language interpreters or prompters. I’m sure that, without the ADA’s accommodation requirements, many of these students might not have had the chance for a higher education.

    As far as the church is concerned, your comments have made me realize that we don’t see very many people with disabilities in worship. Our own church building has some wheelchair accommodations–a door that can be opened by pushing one of those large buttons, for example–though the education wing is probably off limits because of stairs and lack of an elevator. And I’m sure it isn’t fun to try and use one of the bathrooms in a wheelchair. But we do have a few wheelchair users who attend services; most are elderly. But in all the churches I’ve attended, I’ve seen few people with disabilities. I wonder why that is. Is it lack of accommodation? Is it the “if-you-had-enough-faith-God-would-’heal’-you” attitude that you describe? I wonder.

  6. Toni permalink
    July 26, 2010

    No one wants the disabled to suffer discrimination. But a lot of reasonable, well-intentioned folks suffer a real degree of compassion fatigue when they see so MANY people abusing this law just to avoid having to follow the rules. That’s not right. The law has too many loopholes. I’m all for giving the disabled EQUAL rights. But when being labeled “disabled” gives you MORE rights, you invite people to actively seek the label. Don’t tell me it doesn’t happen. It happens all the time.

  7. Karen permalink
    July 27, 2010

    I think we should be aware of all disabilities. I have a mental disorder and it has disabled me in many different ways. The hardest is when I have to go to the hospital people are afraid to visit me. I often think if I had a heart attack the church would be right there. We need to be senative to all disabilities and give care when needed. I know physical limitaitons are hard but many of us have other un seen disabilities and we need love as well. On this anniversary I hope the word gets out that we need to be include all people and be willing to use the proper terms to help them in worship, sunday school, and other places and events in the church. a simple “please stand if you are able” allows those who can’t stand easily permission to sit during a hymn, God doesn’t care if you stand and raise your hands , he likes it but it is not a requirment to praising the Lord. Let us begin to be sensative and careing to all our brothers and sisters of the world

  8. July 27, 2010

    A great post Julie. I’m currently preparing lectures for seminarians on a theology of disability, part of which will be concerned to raise some of the same issues you raise here.

  9. Mark McRoberts permalink
    July 27, 2010

    I come from a family of church choir singers. I am a fifth generation member of our rural church (does not make me any more special). I sang in the choir until it just got too difficult to move around with my cane. My 80+ Mom who also moves with a cane decided to quit the choir too because the young new choir director and student preacher wanted to have us process down the isle go up rail-less steps up to the choir loft behind the pulpit. When we refused and said that we would join the choir just like we had always done without difficulty they changed the service again to where the choir has to process midway during the service. And we had to stand up on those stairs to sing our anthum. We just quit. We gave up our minstry our music minstry to our fellow congregats and just sit in the pews.

    When it is painful for people to stand during service they sit. People don’t think twice about it. But Heaven help you if you can’t go through all the “event action” as abled bodied persons do. You are just too much of a problem. Now we are looked upon as trouble makers because we can not do the same as others. We made it though the civil war with the same church we can get over this little mess. We both know that God hears us sing in our seats! Everyone else will have to sit a little closer!

  10. July 28, 2010

    Karen:
    Thanks for sharing. My wife and I have a close friend who has suffered from mental illness for many years. It’s a blessing to her, her husband, and to us, that they attend a church that accepts them.

  11. Elaine Ledbetter permalink
    July 29, 2010

    All the posts are wonderful points to start thinking about this issue. All of us are able in different ways and it makes my life richer if I can assist “disabled” folks participate in life and events fully. There are two things that put me a risk of offending or iratating folks who visibily need accommodation to participate. One is asking if I can be of help and asking what help is needed or wanted, and the other is in accurately identifing a need. Sometimes I make mistakes and have offended both by not offering and by offering. I currently work with a number of folks who for various reasons are losing their ability to function has they have for years (loss of vision, loss of mobility, loss of driving privileges, loss of hearing) and now will not accept accommodation of their need and begin to self isolate. It is sad to see the community lose their participation, knowledge, skills. May we all remain open to everyone’s talents and accommodate abilities as we learn how to do that.

  12. Annah permalink
    July 30, 2010

    I appreciate your words. And from a church point of view, I have to admit that I hadn’t thought too much about these things. From a “business” point of view I’m still frustrated.

    A few years ago I bought an old two story house with plans to fix it up and open a hair salon. The first floor was to have 3 chair stations and the upstairs plan was to have two. Eventually. The public bathroom was on the first floor and would be handicapped accessible. Ramps were envisioned to make the salon accessible to all.

    Oh, the vision was starting to take shape.

    That’s until I was told I would have to install an elevator. Yup. An elevator. I was told this was needed in case someone with limited mobility desired to go to the second floor. This was crazy as there was nothing on the second floor which could not be found on the first floor. But, said the inspector, it was the law. I would have to pay a HUGE amount of money remodeling and installing a new elevator on the off chance that a disable person just might want to visit the upstairs? Um, sorry no. I couldn’t afford it so another small business bit the dust.

    Don’t get me wrong, I think the ADA Law was long overdue. On many levels it has fixed wrongs and opened eyes to prejudices that still exist. But you’ll forgive me if I experience a little bit of a bad taste in my mouth until common sense applies to this law as well.

  13. bill holston permalink
    July 30, 2010

    I just returned from Ireland. At a train station, I noticed a woman in a wheelchair struggling. I asked if they needed a hand. When she noticed my american accent, she mentioned how much she admired the ADA in america, and how little accommodation there is for disability in Europe. Having a disabled mother in law totally changed my view of this. When she used to drive, she’d have to go home if all the handicap parking spots are taken.

    Like lots of rights issues, sadly Christians have been the last to stand up for justice. Access to facilities is a justice issue, and one we should be the first to speak up about.

  14. August 3, 2010

    Out of sight, out of mind. That’s why we turn the other way instead of the other cheek.

    I know from personal experience. I don’t care about people in general, even as a Christian. I only care about individuals. So – sadly – it takes a personal relationship with someone with special needs before I pay attention.

    And in general, most church people aren’t out in the world enough to make those kinds of relationships.

    -Marshall Jones Jr.

  15. August 5, 2010

    i feel like in some of the comments, ignorance and apathy are being used as excuses, but i may be misunderstanding this. i think they are part of the problem, not excuses for it. maybe that’s what those commenters meant.

    anyway…
    another thing to consider is that some people with social differences (personal example: autistic/aspergers, but i’m sure there are others with similar effect) have a hard time even being at church or even looking for a church to belong to, due to the overwhelming social aspect of that process. still not quite sure what to do about that, either.

    PS: i am so … what’s the word? pleased seems cruel, like i’m happy you somehow ended up missing an arm, which must be pretty inconvenient a lot of the time. but i *am* pleased by the cheekiness of your blog title, and it being literal. and i’m pleased to see a one-handed person out there in the middle of things saying “HERE I AM get used to it”, because that’s a part of human diversity.

  16. August 5, 2010

    PS: the problem is not with the existence of ADA. the worse problem is that actual accommodations are insufficient (perhaps compliance with the letter but ignoring the spirit?). i could give tons of examples just from my work, and i don’t even work in the disabilities services department, i just talk to the actual people.

  17. Yoon Kim permalink
    March 7, 2011

    thank you so much for your heart for the people with disabilities.
    May peace and grace to you in Christ.

    We are created in the image and likeness of God (Gen 1:26-27).
    God does amazing miracles through the people with disabilities.
    He reveals Himself through these people.
    They are gifts and channels of grace.

  18. October 25, 2011

    I know my reply is a bit dated from your article, but I too want to chime in with my concern that our church does need to lead the way in helping society learn how to better interact with the disabled. I have been active in Joni and Friends New England for the past two summers at family camp where I and other STM’s (short term missionaries) work with children who and disabilities and their families in order to provide the family respite, counsel, and opportunity to reenergize. This organization is helping churches reach the disabled.

    My motto on my site is my call ‘knocking down stigmas while building up people’

    Your article hit home.

    Thank you
    Dismantling Disabilities

  19. February 24, 2012

    The federal government currently spends $60,000 a year housing pedophiles, rapists, murderers and other violent sociopaths. here’s a novel idea: why doesn’t the federal government spend $60,000 a year on low income disabled persons? Isn’t it fair that disabled people should at least have a equal standard of living to a murderer or a pedophile? Low Income Disabled people should get everything prisoners get: free medical care, free food, free housing and free education. Federal government could easily find ways to cut benefits to prisoners and give us the money instead.

  20. Heather Ferreira permalink
    February 25, 2012

    I have been blessed by your blogs Julie. The need here is for the church to go to the persons with disabilities also

  21. Grand Rapids, MI permalink
    January 6, 2014

    My husband and I were/are members of a church. After many years, his disability got so bad he couldn’t attend church anymore. Not one member of this church (including the pastor) ever came to visit him to minister to him and now he’s passed away (not there then either). This church appears to have written his and my membership off because he couldn’t attend. He was a Christian, a kind man to everyone. A few other close friends and relatives visited him and the people in the community were gracious to help him when he was able to go out and saw him struggling. People are imperfect, selfish and self-centred. The church needs to step out of the pulpit and care for the people around them, live what they believe not just look for a life saver for themselves. There’s a lot of disabled people out there who can’t make it to church and there’s a lot of people going to these churches.

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