Going to a new church as a disabled person is a brave act. Why? Because churches have a history of being unwelcoming to us.
I love the church. I can’t and won’t give the church up, no matter how wounded I feel. Yet, I know more disabled people who have left the church than who have stayed. I know more parents who have left after giving birth to or adopting children with disabilities than who have stayed. Whenever I’m asked about Christian speakers, writers, and leaders who are disabled, I pause to think if I can add any new names to the short list.
I didn’t understand why until I dug into disability history. I’ve been physically disabled from childhood abuse injuries and adult-onset rheumatoid arthritis. I have a M.A.Ed. in special education. I have six children, and their collective diagnoses include cerebral palsy, autism, anxiety, epilepsy, HIV, PTSD, asthma, and ADHD. Even though I have spent most of my life immersed in the field of disability personally, professionally, and parentally, I didn’t know much about the history of disability in the U.S. or in the church until I did my own research.
In the 1980s, the disabled civil rights movement launched. ADAPT, a group that recently protested successfully against harmful healthcare legislation, led the way, focusing on transportation and wheelchair access on buses at that time. Ultimately, their efforts led to the passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990. Before the ADA, buildings didn’t have to have ramps, parking lots didn’t have to have handicapped spots, and public transportation didn’t have to have wheelchair lifts. Anyone older than 28 was born when disabled people didn’t have the same rights under U.S. law as abled people.
Today, disabled people still don’t have the same rights as abled people in U.S. churches or Christian schools. Those institutions are exempt from the ADA. It didn’t happen by accident or loophole, though. They actively fought against being legally accountable to provide access to disabled people, as shown in archived documents. Unfortunately, they didn’t hold themselves morally or biblically accountable to do so either.
William Bentley Ball, representing the Association of Christian Schools International, lobbied against ADA for two reasons: the cost of making schools accessible and concerns about government intrusion into religious institutions. “Religious exercise, within the meaning of the First Amendment will be directly involved if churches and religious schools are not expressly exempted from the terms of the ADA,” he wrote in a letter dated July 13, 1989, to the director of the Office of Policy Development at the White House.
Ball’s reasoning stated that religious institutions – including not only private schools but also churches and day cares – are “morally required (as a matter of clear and unconditional religious principle) to discriminate against carriers of AIDS where AIDS was incurred through immoral conduct.” Even though most of today’s U.S. churches wouldn’t agree with such arguments, the exemption still stands today.
Beyond those problematic arguments, Ball continued, arguing that there was no compelling state interest in religious organizations being accessible. “Nothing has been shown to indicate that there is a national necessity to apply the ADA Bill to churches, religious schools, and other ministries.” In essence, his logic declared that there was no good reason for Christian organizations to be accessible to people with disabilities.
While some religious institutions endorsed the ADA, the flawed legal opinions of Ball and other were heeded. Language suggested by Ball was added to the ADA. Churches could have advocated for Ball’s voice to represent Christian schools but not extend to churches, but they didn’t. Instead, Robert P. Dugan, director of the National Association of Evangelicals’ Office of Public Affairs, wrote a letter to the U.S. Senate in agreement with Ball’s arguments. Unlike the handful of Christian entities in favor of the ADA, Dugan’s evangelical organization represented “some 37,000 local congregations in forty-five denominations, with a total service constituency of fifteen million people.” On behalf of fifteen million members of my faith, Dugan argued against access to churches for me, my children, and other disabled people.
The outcome of exempting Christian churches and schools from the ADA has been threefold. First, most Christian education programs have only served abled students. Second, no other religions made similar arguments to Ball, so Christians stood alone against access for disabled people. Finally, this outcome communicated to the disability community that they did not belong in mainstream U.S. Christianity, as churches either actively opposed the ADA or passively didn’t abide by it because they weren’t required to do so legally.
The cost issue for adhering to the ADA was a real concern. It would be unfair to dismiss that objection. Yet, instead of asking for additional time to comply with the law, allowing for the major expenses of accessibility to be spread out, Christians said no to the ADA. No historical records show any attempts by the church leaders opposing the ADA to reconcile the challenges it would create.
Before the ADA, many places were inaccessible to disabled people. After the ADA passed, churches were still inaccessible because they – along with both Christian schools and country clubs – wanted to be exempt from this major piece of civil rights legislation for disabled people. This effort damaged the witness of the church to the disability community in our country while also limiting disabled people from being theologically trained in seminaries.
Disabled people didn’t leave the church. The church didn’t even leave us. No, we were never welcome. When we choose the brave act of entering a church, we are declaring that we will resist the ableism they have baptized, protesting civilly by being present at all.
It takes all the forgiveness we can find to love churches that didn’t want us. My family’s experiences and my work in church inclusive practices for more than a decade have shown me the love and belonging we desire isn’t reciprocated yet. Hopefully, someday the church will love us back.