Most often, we Christians don’t feel a particularly warm response toward laws that impose themselves on church life such as our facilities and our public events. But someone sent me an article recently that celebrates a law that requires churches to comply. Though the article is 10 years old, and the United Kingdom law it celebrates, the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA), has been replaced, the ideas expressed are as relevant today as when this article written. The DDA is a civil rights law that outlaws discrimination against people who have disabilities in relation to employment, the provision of goods and services, education and transportation.
In this article, author Paul Dicken admits that “it is easy for churches who are stretched financially to see the legal obligations imposed by the DDA as just another burden. However,” he continues, “those perceptions can be transformed when church leaders are imaginative and see that when the Act’s requirements are implemented, a whole new area of opportunity is created to reach out to what is, arguably, the largest disadvantaged and marginalised people group in the world.”
After citing statistics to emphasize the significant number of people with disabilities among us, he points out the obvious: a person with a disability usually is part of a family. If barriers keep out the person with the disability, likely their family will not become involved in church life either.
Many, maybe most, people affected by disability grow weary from the challenges resulting from the disability itself in addition to the requirements of meetings with medical personnel, therapists, case workers, and others. Though these supports are designed to help the person with the disability, the constant appointments carry a burden of their own. In addition, society distances itself from people with disabilities in many ways such as employment and internet access, even going to the movies.
Churches can be a haven where people are welcomed, accepted, and engaged instead of facing the same rejection that society often dishes. Sadly, they do face discrimination at church too, and their lower attendance at worship than the general population reflects this. If the person with the disability is not attending worship, likely his family is not either. Dicken counters, “If we truly believe that the Christian gospel is for everyone, then we will want to be inclusive of disabled people, affirming them, sharing Christ’s love with them and, importantly, being enriched by their presence.”
Laws like the DDA can stimulate ministry. Dicken says, “Churches have an obligation to plan ahead—it is not sufficient to wait until a disabled person comes to church. Remember that good accessibility benefits everyone, and there are many different types of disability—fewer than 8 percent of disabled people are wheelchair users.” He suggests that the planning process itself can be an opportunity for outreach, “Do confer with disabled people and disability organisations in your area whether or not they are connected with your church.”
Following the law is just a starting point. Dicken urges, “It is people’s attitudes that make a real difference—if a church genuinely wants to be inclusive of disabled people, it will give thought to finding a way around any practical difficulties. Churches who see people as important and precious will want to go further than the DDA requires; they will want disabled people to be fully included in all aspects of church life.”
Churches in Ontario are required to comply with the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act. U.S. churches do not need to comply with most provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act. How have accessibility laws affected ministry at your church?