The ADA and The Church (Part I of III)

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The 1993 CRC Synod heartily recommended full compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Since 2008, the RCA claims to support full compliance with the ADA. What does it mean to comply with the ADA? In some important ways the CRC and RCA still ignore this resolution and claim of supporting the ADA.

In addition to the churches, some of the portions of the CRC that are to fully comply with the ADA are, the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, the Worship Symposium, the Calvin University January Series, the Center for Excellence in Preaching, Inspire conferences, the Banner and Reformed Worship magazines, Calvin and Hope colleges and their seminaries. These and other portions of the CRC or the RCA have rarely or never taught on or explained the ADA or its Biblical foundations and its application to churches or special ministries. That long silence itself violates the law and allows disability discrimination to continue. 

Other laws, such as the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and the 2005 Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) aim for access, but the ADA aims to end disability discrimination. It requires that we stop disabling people who have impairments in the first place, not just that we allow access as an add-on at the end of what we create. Teaching individuals to be prepared for individual variation helps individuals, which the ADA also does, but the ADA requires systemic, institutional level changes.

It may help to understand non-compliance with the law by noting some foundational definitions of those other laws compared to the ADA.

The 1975 IDEA says, “Disability is a natural part of the human experience and in no way diminishes the right of individuals to participate in or contribute to society.”  The core principles of the 2005 AODA are independence, dignity, integration and equality of opportunity for people with disabilities. Those may be fine laws and they may be what the CRC and RCA try to follow, but the IDEA and the AODA are not the same as the ADA.

For the 1990 ADA, "impairments" are a natural part of the human experience, but we create environments that turn impairments into disabilities. Disability occurs between a person with an impairment and her or his social environment. We can make reasonable changes to the environments we create before we misuse our tools. Not doing this ignores principles from Scripture and is the disability discrimination the ADA prohibits. 

Many millennia after similar Biblical principles were given, the secular, social science definitions that built the ADA were developed and can be found in the International Classification of Impairments, Disability, Function and Health (ICF - 2).

  1. An impairment is an injury, illness or congenital condition that causes or is likely to cause a loss or difference of physiological or psychological function.
  2. A disability is the loss or limitation of opportunities to take part in society on an equal level with others due to negative interactions with social and environmental barriers. Those barriers can be grouped under five headings:
    1. negative cultural representations
    2. inflexible organizational policies, procedures and practices
    3. segregated social provision
    4. inaccessible information formats
    5. inaccessible built environment and product design.

An impairment is part of a disabling interaction, but it is not the cause of disability. Disabling barriers are the cause. The preamble of the ADA states that the ADA is "An Act To establish a clear and comprehensive prohibition of discrimination on the basis of disability." The ADA tries to reasonably prohibit disability discrimination, that is, the causing of disability, but people do not like being told what to do or not do. Individual, voluntary help  is preferred, but is not the same as comprehensive systemic change which the ADA requires.

Even with the practices of universal and responsive design, the CRC and RCA diminish participation by continuing to disable people who have impairments especially through their misuse of communication technology. They provide a measure of help to some individuals, but ignore many millions more by not discussing, teaching or ending disability discrimination as defined and required by the ADA. Even with teaching as their only sword, the CRC and RCA could reach fuller ADA compliance if they discussed this lawbreaking and reversed 30 years of silence on the ADA. 

The problems addressed by the ADA and similar laws are not new. The ADA’s Biblical basis indicates responsibility for what we create and rejects misuse of information and communication systems (see article 3).

The larger problems addressed by the ADA and local laws are found both in Scripture and in the works of other Christian writers. We read in the book of Exodus, chapters 7 to 12, how God afflicted the Egyptians with 10 plagues in order to force Pharaoh to let the Children of Israel worship their God. Our technology may seem new, but the core issue for churches—a marginalized people blocked from worshiping God – is not new.

We read in the 2nd chapter of the Gospel of John, that Jesus made a whip and drove out the money changers and their marketplace from the Court of the Gentiles. Their dishonesty and defiling of what was supposed to be a house of prayer kept the Gentiles from worshiping God. 

Charles Spurgeon put it this way, “Someone asked, Will the heathen who have never heard the Gospel be saved? It is more a question with me whether we—who have the Gospel and fail to give it to those who have not—can be saved."

C. S. Lewis revealed in the Screwtape Letters, chapter 2, that the Senior Tempter, Screwtape, believed, “One of our great allies at present is the Church itself.” It offers one shiny little book containing a liturgy which seekers and converts do not understand, and one shabby little book containing texts of a number of religious lyrics–in very small print.

My Puritan and Huguenot ancestors asked, “When will they learn not to block worship of God?” I ask similar questions. When will churches stop misusing technology in ways that disable people who do not see, hear, or read well so that we too can learn of and worship God? And, if they do, who will benefit most, those who think they see well or those who know they do not?

In Christ,
Dr. John Jay Frank

See all three new articles: 

  1. The ADA and The Church
  2. Why Be An Accessible Church?
  3. A Scriptural Look at Creating an Accessible Church

To learn more, visit the website, www.minstrelmissions.com and click on the book’s cover to read a 15 page copy of the Preface, the Table of Contents, and the Introduction to, Turning Barriers Into Bridges, by Dr. John Jay Frank (the view more tab leads to the amazon.com page). Questions or comments? Contact [email protected].

Dr. Frank, an ordained minister of the Gospel and a research scientist for many years, authored a multi-year, federally funded, three volume research project on the impact of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). In these three new articles, he focuses on church denominations which, in all their portions, voluntarily chose to fully comply with the law.

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