Q & A on the ADA: The Church and the Americans with Disabilities Act

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by Rev. John Jay Frank, Ph.D., author of several books including Turning Barriers Into Bridges: The Inclusive Use of Information and Communication Technology for Churches in America, Britain, and Canada. Editor's note: although the Americans with Disabilities Act was enacted in the United States, the CRC Synod 1993 called all churches and ministries of the CRC in Canada and the U.S. to work toward full compliance with all the provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Therefore, though the article below focuses on U.S. legislation, Synod itself declared that the principles on which this article is based apply equally in the U.S. and Canada.

WHAT is the difference between helping people with disabilities as the church has always done (and still does) and the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA)?

The ADA is an act to prohibit disability discrimination. It is not a call to help people. Churches commit disability discrimination even while at the same time they help people, including helping some who have a functional loss or limitation. Disability occurs when a person with an impaired or loss of function interacts with activities or environments we create that we could make accessible, but do not. People in churches commit disability discrimination with what we create and the activities we run. The ADA calls us to be aware of and correct what we do that unnecessarily excludes people. We obscure our role and responsibility if we think the ADA invites us to do good works instead of it calling us to examine what we do and to stop harming or excluding people who have an impairment.

The Bible tells us not to dig a hole and leave it unattended, so as to avoid accidental injury or death, and to put up a railing around a porch, so people do not fall off or drop things on those below, and not to put a stone in the road where someone who is blind may trip on it, and not to lead someone who is blind astray. (Ex. 21:33-34, Lev. 19:14-15, Deut 22:8, Deut. 27:18). These are part of love your neighbor and many of our secular laws. Sins of omission, such as, failing to put up safety rails or failure to use universal design or to provide reasonable accommodations are as serious as sins of commission, such as, cursing the deaf or putting a barrier in the way of people who are blind. The focus of the ADA is on our personal responsibility. We should take care not to harm others with what we create and do, whether or not anyone falls into the holes we dig--and this is not new.

WHY do we need the ADA? Should our motivation be different or is the reason still love and concern for all people and love and gratitude to God?

One fruit of the Spirit is love, which is kind and not self-seeking, but another fruit is self-control (Gal. 5:22-23). The Heidelberg Catechism lists love of others and love and gratitude to God as the motive for good works. However, there is a difference between doing good works and refraining from bad works. Paul highlights these two fruit of the Spirit in 1 Tim. chapter 2:9-10, “apply self-control to yourself, and do good works to others”. Then, in chapter 3 he refers to self-control and good works as two qualifications for elders and deacons. The Belgic Confession reiterates this. In response to a lack of self-control in church, Paul wrote, “Do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing?” (I Cor.11:20-22). That question can apply to disability discrimination in church.

A more precise motivation for the ADA is self-control. The opposite of self-control is unrestrained indulgence of sensual pleasure, which may occur alongside loving outreach to help others and may harm others. If our motives do not include self-control and personal responsibility, our actions may be incomplete, incorrect, late, demeaning, or damaging to a person with an impairment. Further, those who could learn self-control in what they do will remain ignorant and continue to cause harm and spread disability discrimination.

Some churches request that their members not wear strong perfume, cologne, or after-shave so as not to harm (unknown) others who are allergic to those odors. Those fragrances are for the pleasure of the senses. When someone uses a guide dog in church, we ask people not to interfere with its work. Petting a soft-haired dog is a pleasure to the senses. When the ADA was proposed, some architects protested that requiring ramps or building without stairs interfered with their creation of beautiful buildings. Their concept of beauty meant gratifying aesthetic pleasure over the needs and inclusion of people with impairments. In many churches, the standard for paper handouts and projected lyrics or scripture is to use hard to see, small fonts with pretty, but poor color contrast, and added designs and pictures; again, for sensual satisfaction. Gratifying aesthetic pleasure over including people with impairments is also seen when a church rejects a hearing loop because a wire around the inside wall is viewed by some as not being in good taste.

Some people find that due to cancer treatments or other ailments they cannot attend worship services. The music volume and intensity are too powerful for their frail condition. They must either wait outside until the worship service is over or not come to church at all. Whether the volume and intensity is from an organ, a drum set, or electronic amplification, it is a sensual pleasure to some and pain to others. Some excuses for Indulging pleasures of the senses over including people with impairments in church are that the majority prefers it, or that this is the most effective means of communication, or this is a means to attract the younger generation or the secular world to Christ--as though the great commission did not include the great commandment. We are to be salt and light to the world, but what are we communicating and what kind of disciples are we making by our example and choices?

WHO is covered by the ADA and WHO has responsibility for fulfilling the ADA?

All of us are covered by the ADA. This is not about a preference, a personal choice, or the opinion of one over another or over a majority. Alterations and accommodations are not options, they are essential for some of the 20% of the population who have disabilities, which could include any of us at any time. Plus, the incidence of disability increases with age and our population is aging and living longer (Eph. 6:2). The ADA does not require that we include people with all kinds or all levels of impairments, but rather that we help those who could participate, if reasonable changes are made to the way something is done or if certain accommodations are provided--even if some people still choose not to participate.

The responsibility for fulfilling the ADA lies with the person who creates things or runs activities and should have the same oversight and feedback that exists for any job in order to minimize failure. It is not the responsibility of additional volunteers or a special group to make the church accessible, although others may help. The person who makes computer slides is responsible for making them accessible. The person who makes the church bulletin is responsible for making some accessible bulletins. The Pastor/teacher is responsible for sermon outlines and study notes. Gluten-free wafers and non-acidic juice for communion, or sugar-free desserts at church suppers are not hard to provide. Church leaders are responsible for facilitating fulfillment of the ADA and for educating people about the ADA because this relates to Biblical principles which are central to the Kingdom of God.

WHERE does the ADA apply?

People with impairments are a minority protected in most places in the United States by the ADA--except in church (some church employees are protected). Where for the sake of indulging or gratifying sensual pleasure we do things in a way which is unnecessary, that harms people with impairments or excludes them from the worship and Word of God, or where we fail to do something we could do to prevent harm and include people with impairments, we commit disability discrimination, but it is not a crime in church. Also, we usually can only change things we can control and where it is not too expensive.

WHEN should universal design or reasonable accommodations be applied?

The ADA is not one more thing to add to our list of priorities, but rather, it is a prerequisite for everything we do. We should not place unnecessary barriers in the way of people with impairments or harm them in the first place. This must occur continuously and pro-actively in advance of any requests, and not just as a reaction after we see a need or cause a problem. We cannot wait for people to ask for access; it would likely be too late by then. Further, some people deny impairments, especially hidden ones like a vision or hearing loss, or pain, and others would rather avoid conflict so they will not ask for access.

HOW can we fully comply with the ADA and prevent disability discrimination and HOW much will adhering to the ADA cost?

The leadership of a church needs to adopt a Church Disability Policy that includes adhering to the ADA to end disability discrimination--and make it known. The church can end its disability discrimination by pro-actively utilizing universal design, that is, by designing things and activities in a way that includes people who have impairments and pro-actively making accommodations available to people who could not otherwise participate--and making known what is available. The ADA began with several years advance notice and resources so we could learn what it means and how to fulfill it, but during the past 20 years, many churches failed to teach this or the Biblical basis of the ADA. In the past two decades, resources have grown on the ADA hotline—800-514-0301, and Web site—www.ada.gov.

Most alterations and accommodations cost little or nothing. Changes should not alter the fundamental purpose of what we do and should not be an undue burden. However, twenty percent of the population has an impairment; therefore, a rough cost estimate is that up to 20 percent of our various budgets and efforts should be directed toward including them in church. For example, a church remodeling or repair project may cost $100,000. So $20,000 could go for accessibility features. We may spend $10,000 on a new sound system. So $2,000 should go for an ear loop system or other modifications. A new piano or keyboard costs a certain amount. So up to 20% of that cost could be directed towards the purchase of large-print songbooks or signs. That cost estimate should be included in our other ongoing budgets. The specific needs of a church population or the local community can help guide decisions, but changes need to occur in preparation for future use even if no one with a particular type of impairment attends the church now.

Nine Reasons for the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA)

FINDINGS OF THE UNITED STATES CONGRESS

The nine findings of the United States Congress concerning the status of persons with disabilities in the United States recorded in Public Law 101-336 (The ADA Statute). (Retrieved February 13, 2003, from 1990, http://www.usdoj.gov:80/crt/ada/pubs/ada.txt.)

SEC. 2. Of THE ADA FINDINGS AND PURPOSES

(a) Findings.--The Congress finds that--

(1) some 43,000,000 Americans have one or more physical or mental disabilities, and this number is increasing as the population as a whole is growing older;

(Note, in 2012, the figure is 20% of 300 million Americans, or 60 million people JJF.)

(2) historically, society has tended to isolate and segregate individuals with disabilities, and, despite some improvements, such forms of discrimination against individuals with disabilities continue to be a serious and pervasive social problem;

(3) discrimination against individuals with disabilities persists in such critical areas as employment, housing, public accommodations, education, transportation, communication, recreation, institutionalization, health services, voting, and access to public services;

(4) unlike individuals who have experienced discrimination on the basis of race, color, sex, national origin, religion, or age, individuals who have experienced discrimination on the basis of disability have often had no legal recourse to redress such discrimination;

(5) individuals with disabilities continually encounter various forms of discrimination, including outright intentional exclusion, the discriminatory effects of architectural, transportation, and communication barriers, overprotective rules and policies, failure to make modifications to existing facilities and practices, exclusionary qualification standards and criteria, segregation, and relegation to lesser services, programs, activities, benefits, jobs, or other opportunities;

(6) census data, national polls, and other studies have documented that people with disabilities, as a group, occupy an inferior status in our society, and are severely disadvantaged socially, vocationally, economically, and educationally;

(7) individuals with disabilities are a discrete and insular minority who have been faced with restrictions and limitations, subjected to a history of purposeful unequal treatment, and relegated to a position of political powerlessness in our society, based on characteristics that are beyond the control of such individuals and resulting from stereotypic assumptions not truly indicative of the individual ability of such individuals to participate in, and contribute to, society;

(8) the Nation's proper goals regarding individuals with disabilities are to assure equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency for such individuals; and

(9) the continuing existence of unfair and unnecessary discrimination and prejudice denies people with disabilities the opportunity to compete on an equal basis and to pursue those opportunities for which our free society is justifiably famous, and costs the United States billions of dollars in unnecessary expenses resulting from dependency and non-productivity.

 

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