Build the Ramp for the People Who CAN Walk

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According to 1 Corinthians 12, the body of Christ engages all members of the community. No part of the community may exclude another, nor may parts self-exclude. In fact, the parts that seem to be weaker are indispensable for a healthy body. All of us who look to Scripture as our guide for faith and life agree in principle. But agreeing in practice becomes much more difficult.

For example, a pastor once asked me, “Why should we put a ramp on our church? No one who uses a wheelchair attends our church.” For a long time, my answer to his question was to point out the obvious: no one who uses a wheelchair can attend his church if they can’t get in the door. Now I have an even better answer for that pastor’s question.

In a speech at this year’s Summer Institute in Theology and Disability, Rabbi Darby Leigh talked about “community.” He insisted that community isn’t true community unless the gathering of people is widely diverse. Though he did not refer to 1 Corinthians 12, the principles expressed in that passage apply.

Leigh argued, “If you have a group of people who are all like each other, you don’t have a community, you have a country club." "Therefore,” he continued, “when a synagogue or church thinks about making accommodations for people such as ramps or accessible bathrooms or hearing loops, the leaders of those faith communities often think that those accommodations are for the sake of people with disabilities. But no, accommodations are not for the people with disabilities, they’re for the rest of the people. A gathering that does not include people with disabilities is not a community, it’s a country club.”

When the eye says to the hand, “I have no need of you,” the eye loses the opportunity for community in his church. When the head says to the feet, “I have no need of you,” the head loses the opportunity for community in her church. The eye and the head need to build ramps and create accessible communications and change their exclusionary attitudes about people with disabilities because they miss out on the true community God wants to provide to them by including the hands and feet.

Frequently I’ve heard people evaluate the benefit of ramps and hearing loops and accessible communications based on how many people with disabilities would use them. Now I understand that that kind of analysis misses the point, because everyone needs those accommodations to be faithful to the vision of the body of Christ painted by the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 12.

What is the next step your church needs to take to move toward true community?

Update (8/3/2016): This principle can apply to more than buildings. Jubilee Fellowship Christian Reformed Church in St. Catherines, Ontario, took this approach with their four week summer camp so that kids with and without autism could all participate together. 

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 When our congregation decided to build an elevator--ramps would have been even more costly because we would have needed one for outside, which was the easy part, and one for inside--we already had people in our congregation who were suffering from arthritis for whom climbing stairs was painful.  It has proved to be a long-lasting investment even though we got the cheapest model available, or almost, and many men from the congregation did as much of the work as possible that did not require technical expertise.  That is one way churches can cut down on expenses.

This is also true for children. My church makes few concessions for the children, arguing that if they attend for long enough they'll turn into real people, ie adults. We miss so much when we marginalise or ignore the little, weak, or elderly.

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