For the entire history of the church, there has been a struggle around the inclusion of mental and physical disabilities as equal congregation members. While Christ preached mercy and kindness towards those who are different from the able-bodied and neurotypical, that has not always been the truth of the church’s history. The exclusion of disabled worshippers is not always intentional or out of wickedness; it’s often out of simple misunderstanding. Today, churches worldwide are showing incredible effort to bring the needs of all church members to light.
The Americans With Disabilities Act — and international equivalents.
It’s been 28 years since the Americans With Disabilities Act was passed by Congress in 1990, and there is still confusion among the public about the role of religious institutions in the Act. The truth? Most religious institutions, including Christian churches, are exempt from the rulings of the ADA. There is very little legal obligation for churches to physically accommodate disabled community members with the signs, ramps, and elevators that other community buildings must adhere to. The same is true in most other parts of the world. In England, the historical precedence of their 9000+ churches takes legal priority over nation-wide accessibility laws. Church members and leadership are starting to question the ethics of this trend.
What’s spurring this on?
Secular social acceptance of disabilities in general in Western countries is advancing. In modern times, those with physical and mental disabilities appreciate incredible advances in medicine and engineering that allow many to have more mobility and better quality of life than in the past. They can go out and traverse even unfriendly public landscapes with a little help from medication, physical aids, and other supports. This still doesn’t mean they have it easy, and leadership and congregation members are noticing the difficulties disabled church members are enduring.
Many churches nationwide have noticed that flock members who use walkers or wheelchairs, particularly aging folks, don’t have a comfortable and respectful protocol in place to accommodate them. They may be slowly escorted to the front, sat together in narrow pews, and then their walkers are stored far away from them in the back. This brings up safety concerns where these mobility impaired congregation members won’t be able to easily evacuate in the event of an emergency, and also concerns about preserving autonomy and respect for all members.
Church members have also raised concerns for children in their care, particularly disabled foster children who are often taken in by concerned congregation members. Omaha’s Lifegate Church is currently mourning the August 2018 passing of one of their faithful long-time members, Mrs. Diane Kissinger. Kissinger fostered over 150 children in Nebraska over the last 25 years of her life. Even more amazing? Many of those 150 children had moderate to severe, even fatal, physical and mental disabilities. Kissinger’s son credits his mother’s strong faith for carrying her through such a difficult but rewarding life — but what if her beloved church didn’t accommodate the many disabled children she loved and cared for in the name of God?
Still others are seeing issues arise when congregation members are recovering from common tragedies and illnesses. Around 3 million people are injured each year in traffic accidents on U.S. roads, and some of those injured need temporary or permanent mobility aids. Some need critical tools like oxygen. When they suddenly find it difficult to enter or navigate their house of worship, a lightbulb turns on.
Challenges met with creative solutions and hope.
At an individual level, churches are coming up with creative and heartwarming solutions to welcome their current and future disabled worshippers. While traditional church pews are simple narrow wooden designs (maybe with a cushion or footrest) that aren’t very accommodating to those who have mobility aids, some churches are altering their seating setup to allow wheelchair users easy movement. Others are using newer comfy designs that please non-disabled church goers as well. A few are exchanging a number of their current pews for ones that have space allotted for walkers.
Although American churches don’t need to meet typical ADA standards, many church leaders are encouraging each other to embrace some main regulations to keep in the teachings of Christ.
Canadian churches are making waves, too. In particular, the Anglican Church of Canada is considering creating a specific position for an envoy to disabled Canadian Anglican Church members, whose frustration with church accommodations was voiced in a survey conducted by two members of church leadership.
In the United Kingdom, groups such as ‘Welcome Me As I Am’ are activists for change in UK churches. Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, is especially vocal about changing the norm in UK churches. Having two daughters with mental and physical struggles himself, he says:
“I find it absolutely extraordinary that disability access comes second to heritage… I really find that bizarre. Well, that’s one way of saying we don’t care about you, isn’t it?”
With so many faiths and levels of church leadership working on this, change is expected to come slowly, but surely. Do you see places in your own place of worship that could be improved for inclusion’s sake?