Thirty Years Later: The Church and the ADA

by David Morstad

July of 2020 marks the 30th anniversary of the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act, a landmark, life-changing moment for a significant percentage of our citizens.  The ADA required accessibility in public buildings, prohibited discrimination in employment and housing, and generally raised disability awareness. As members of faith communities, though, we are stuck with an uncomfortable reality…

Section 307 of the Americans with Disabilities Act provides that “[t]he provisions of this title shall not apply to . . . religious organizations or entities controlled by religious organizations, including places of worship.”  US Dept. of Justice


Rev. Harold Wilke, born without arms, uses his left foot to accept a pen from President George H. W. Bush at the signing of the ADA, July 26, 1990.

Faith leaders were by no means absent in the efforts that led to the ADA.  Rev. Harold Wilke, a minister in the United Church of Christ, and many others like him worked tirelessly for decades for greater disability awareness and equality.  At the signing ceremony, Wilke actually delivered an invocation—which is itself a unique thing for a bill signing.  In it, he spoke of “the breaking of the chains which have held back millions of Americans with disabilities.” The chains of which he spoke, of course, were not the disability itself, but the physical and attitudinal barriers of our American culture.  Not surprisingly, in the years that followed the signing, Wilke turned his attention to helping churches, temples and mosques become more accessible.


The need for an honest look

Today the church still faces an uphill battle of ableism. Rather than championing the ADA’s vision of disability inclusion, we seem to be content with being carved out of its legal requirements.  How do we begin to deconstruct an entire understanding and relationship when it is so deeply and comfortably seated within our religious culture?  We lack both the education and the practice when it comes to regarding people with disabilities as equal and valued members of our body of faith. But I fear the story is actually worse than that. As a group, we have not yet taken an honest look at our non-disabled selves. What is the likelihood of change if we really see no problem in the first place?

A March 2020 survey from Nashville-based LifeWay Research asked Protestant pastors and churchgoers about their congregations and those with disabilities. Nearly every pastor (99%) and churchgoer (97%) reported that someone with a disability would feel welcomed and included at their church. Family members in a 2013 study might disagree with that self-assessment, since about half of them actually changed churches because their children with disabilities were not included.

Unpacking ableism  

Worship QuoteAs people of faith, when we hear “discrimination” or “negative attitudes” we may think that good caring people like us simply don’t exhibit such things. So what does ableism look like in congregations? A few basic questions might help with that.

  • Do we actively seek out members with disabilities?
  • Do we ask those members to serve in a variety of ways (including leadership roles)?
  • What about our physical accessibility? Can people both open and enter the front door?  Can they easily use bathrooms? Are people who use wheelchairs able to sit anywhere in the worship space? How close is the nearest accessible parking?
  • What about our worship accessibility? How much reading is involved? Is there adaptation for deaf and hearing impaired people?   How much sitting, standing, walking, or kneeling is involved in worship? As one friend observed, “If I hear the phrase, ‘If you’re able’ used in worship, I know I was never a part of their plan.”
  • Are we actively engaging and inclusive, or do we default to “special” educational and worship programs?

Then, of course, there is the big question: As we set out to honestly face these problems, how likely is it that we will engage people with disabilities in solving them?

May we take some time this year to celebrate a truly remarkable occasion. Then, as part of our celebration, may we recommit ourselves to the unfinished work within our communities of faith.

Observing the ADA anniversary in your church?

CLICK HERE for a downloadable

litany and prayer.