The Americans with Disabilities Act and Faith Communities

by David Morstad

Sunday, July 26, marks the 25th anniversary of the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act.  Congress intended the legislation to “provide a clear and comprehensive national mandate for the elimination of discrimination against individuals with disabilities” and its passing is cause for celebration.

Wilke ADAFaith communities in general have had an interesting relationship with the ADA. On one hand, early leaders in the faith and disability arena were among the strongest advocates pushing for the legislation.  People like the late activist Rev. Harold Wilke, who is widely acknowledged as one of the first to frame disability rights as a movement, worked tirelessly in the years preceding the ADA.  Wilke had no arms and used his toes to accept a pen from President Bush on the day of the signing.

On the other hand, the ADA largely exempts houses of worship from compliance. Whatever honor and attention we give to it, we give from our own sense of calling and obligation, and that has not always been easy to come by. Perhaps we have become a little too comfortable with our exempt status and could use a renewed sense of calling. What might the church’s response to this anniversary be?  A few things come to mind.

First, speak up.  “Speak out for those who cannot speak” (Proverbs 31:8), and speak the truth.  Cynicism and mythology continue to surround the ADA, e.g.,

  • “Accommodating disabilities in the workforce is expensive.” No. According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy, 57% of accommodations cost absolutely nothing, while the rest typically cost only about $500.  Even at that, tax incentives are available to help employers with the expense.
  • “Businesses must hire unqualified applicants in order to comply.” No. Applicants must meet all the essential functions of the job and employers need not provide any accommodation that would create an undue hardship.
  • “The ADA produces excessive lawsuits.” No. Given the millions of businesses that must comply, the number of lawsuits filed each year has always been shockingly small.

ADA25-Logo-Horizontal.aiSecond, we can commit ourselves to the fact that this is not about compliance, it’s about relationship.  In the National Organization on Disability’s landmark book, That All May Worship, Wilke states simply “A ramp is not enough.”  He then calls upon religious communities to proclaim that “people with disabilities are welcomed and needed in the House of God.”  Rev. John Jay Frank of the Christian Reformed Church notes, “We obscure our role and responsibility if we think the ADA invites us to do good works instead of it calling us to examine what we do and to stop harming or excluding people who have an impairment.”

Finally, let us be accountable to one another.  Consider signing, or at least affirming, the Pledge to Recommit to Full Implementation of the ADA and Accessible, Welcoming Faith Communities.  At the White House celebration of the ADA this week, President Obama reminded us that “The fight is not over.” As people of faith, we know this, and we acknowledge our call to bring new energy to the mission.

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