The Common Good

Americans With Disabilities and the Church

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 20 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, 20 years ago many disabled people could not physically enter most buildings, ride public transportation, attend mainstream schools, or 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.

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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 20 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.

Julie Clawson is the author of Everyday Justice: The Global Impact of Our Daily Choices (IVP 2009). She blogs at julieclawson.com and emergingwomen.us.

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