I’m continuing the discussion about how bodies matter. And when I say bodies matter, I mean ALL bodies, not just those bodies that happen to be “able bodies.” Do we truly see those with disabilities as valuable members of our community, worthy of love, respect, and dignity? Do we believe God created them as “very good” image bearers? Or do we stigmatize, judge, make assumptions, and even demean those whose bodies are not just like our own?
This has been a unique season for Christians in the U.S., as most of our churches were shuttered due to COVID-19, with many doors remaining shut even today. We long to be together, and we pray for the day the doors can be open, welcoming us back to worship together once again. For many of our brothers and sisters with disabilities, the Church has often been a closed, unwelcoming space. This is literally true in some cases, as the physical structure of some buildings has not allowed these neighbors even to enter in through the front doors. It’s also true, though, in the sense that people with disabilities have not felt welcomed nor valued by the Church. As is true with any of us, these friends long to be part of the Church, but oftentimes it is the Church that has protested the loudest about making accommodations, particularly physical accommodations to buildings, in compliance with the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990). I just discovered the Association of Christian Schools International (ACSI) helped lobby most vociferously against this legislation, and were one of the main groups that succeeded in getting an exemption added for churches and Christian schools that exists to this day.
Some churches, of course, have chosen to make accommodations, but many have not because it would be too costly for their congregations. So, while we have spent our money and opened our churches for countless programs and events, many times we have balked and fought and protested against spending money to help welcome in our brothers and sisters with disabilities. To them, the Church has always been closed. What will it take for us to truly open up our churches for all?
Recently I sat down with my friend, Alicia, one of the most courageous, gifted individuals I know, to discuss her experiences as a person with disabilities in the Church. What I heard was, in a word, heartbreaking, and I hope what I learned from her serves as a wake-up call to those in leadership in churches but also in general to those of us who follow Christ.
One of the most frustrating and sorrowful parts of Alicia’s church journey has been the overlooking of her gifts, passions, and the ways in which she can contribute to the Body of Christ. Alicia uses a wheelchair, but her wheelchair, by no means, is what defines her. She’s a gifted artist, loves to work with children, has an incredible life story she enjoys sharing, and is an incredible advocate for many in our world who are overlooked and even unseen by the Church. Yet, in her words, “People see you as a cripple instead of as a person with gifts and abilities.” She has felt incapable and incompetent to be able to add anything to the life of the Church, and even on the rare occasions when she was asked to volunteer, often there was no thought given to her transportation needs in getting to and from the facility. She also lamented how, “The Church wants you all fixed up and perfect before you can help or volunteer. We don’t have a seat at the table. People with disabilities are overlooked and excluded.”
She also lamented how, “The Church wants you all fixed up and perfect before you can help or volunteer. We don’t have a seat at the table. People with disabilities are overlooked and excluded.”
Perhaps even more egregious were the churches she attended or visited where she was told her disability was caused by sin in her life. People would sometimes lay hands on her and pray over her without even asking her permission. In fact, they went so far as to attempt to cast demons out of her. They would then proceed to insist she was healed and tried to get her to stand up and walk. This is wrong on so many levels, but as Alicia put it, “They tried to play show and tell with me. They were trying to use me as some type of prop, but what they didn’t know, because they didn’t bother asking me, is I already was able to get up out of my wheelchair and walk. Don’t make assumptions about people.”
I asked her about the popular annual prom nights for people with disabilities, which many churches hold with much fanfare. She pointedly responded, “It sometimes feels like inspiration porn to be honest. Are you doing this just to make your church look good? Is it just a one-off event? What are you doing throughout the year to follow up, to provide help and hope for these people? People with disabilities are not your promotional tools. We want to be included. We want to be welcomed in at all times, not just once a year.” These might be hard things for some of us to hear but if we desire a better way forward, a Church that is actually fully open to people with disabilities, we need to hear these thoughts and perspectives.
What does it look like to be an open and inviting church? Here are three things Alicia recommended as a starting point:
Add accessibility as a line item to your budget. Be creative. Maybe you can’t redo the structure of your building, but perhaps you can install an external ramp or a lift. Consider non-structural things, too, like adding closed-captioning and including texts with photos. Perhaps you could hire an ASL interpreter for your services. Not everything needs to be expensive to make a difference. Consult with an expert in this area who can guide you through the process.
Talk to people with disabilities. Treat us like everyone else. Ask us how we’re doing. Ask us how you can pray for us. Get to know us, inside and outside of the church.
Plan events with us in mind. Consider our transportation needs when making decisions about times, days of the week, and venues. Include us in the planning. Don’t be embarrassed to ask questions. We would much rather you ask than make assumptions.
May we first and foremost see our friends with disabilities as fellow-heirs, image bearers, and contributing partners in the Kingdom work we are to be about here on the earth. May we stop making people like Alicia feel they’ve “…done something wrong, as if God didn’t love me enough to heal me.” May we be willing to see each person, each body, as fearfully and wonderfully made by our Creator. May we be willing to lay aside the idolatry of perfection and admit we’re all broken people. May we not define people with disabilities by assumptions we have made or as embodied projects to fix but as people to love, befriend, and value. When the time is right to reopen our church doors and to do so safely, may they be opened widely for all.