by David Morstad
In 2008, a 13-year-old boy was banned from his church for outbursts related to his autism. When his family announced their intentions to attend anyway, the parish priest filed a restraining order against them.
In 2012, the Beth Yeshua HaMashiach congregation in Houston, Texas banned a woman from church because she complained about the inaccessibility of the restrooms. The District Court in Harris County ruled that the church had indeed discriminated against her, although an appellate court later reversed that decision.
It is a polite understatement to say that people with disabilities have often wrestled with their relationship to faith communities; many, like those mentioned above, because of issues of acceptance and accessibility, but many others because they have simply wrestled with scripture itself. Depending on the chapter and verse, they may have read that disability is the result of sin, a sign of God’s disfavor, an intentional act of God to humble a person, or as a metaphor for everything from disobedience to outright stupidity. Is it any wonder why, in the absence of a careful and mature understanding, people with disabilities could be left feeling as though the Holy is inaccessible to them?
While conversations about accessibility in congregations used to be confined to ramps and wider restroom stalls as informed by ADA requirements, a more sophisticated discussion is taking place these days. Basic physical accessibility of all spaces remains, of course, vital. This includes not only the front door and the restrooms, but also those most sacred spaces associated with word and/or sacrament – the chancel, the sanctuary, or the bimah. In addition, issues of sensory accessibility, e.g., accounting for hearing loss, low vision, etc., have enjoyed a greater awareness. Accessibility audits and resources, such as these excellent examples offered by the United Methodist Church, and Barbara Newman’s Accessible Gospel, Inclusive Worship, can be extremely helpful in beginning an intelligent and prayerful examination of both environment and practice.
Perhaps the most important issue in the accessibility discussion, though, is this: Why? Why do we pay attention to these things? To whom is it important? We are mistaken if we believe that non-disabled people are making charitable changes in order to account for people of lesser abilities. In fact, we do these things because we seek to express who we are as a community and are open to the prospect of how this will change us all. Frank Lloyd Wright, who knew a thing or two about how design affects people, put it this way, “The space within becomes the reality of the building.” Taken a step further, it becomes the new reality of all those who move within it. The reason this post began with stories of blatant discrimination is to make the point that, when it comes to our expression of community, welcome, and God’s work among God’s people, environment and practice matter. They speak to us, and they speak about us, and they speak about our God. Writer, Kenneth L. Patton, often quoted in Unitarian literature, offers these lines from his poem, Let Us Worship.
“Let us worship with our eyes and ears and fingertips; Let us love the world through heart and mind and body… Let us worship with the opening of all the windows of our beings, with the full outstretching of our spirits… Let us worship, and let us learn to love.”