Zoie Sheets: The Urgency of Creating Accessible Faith Spaces

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This year, Disability Concerns is hosting our annual leadership training event online. It will be a two day event taking place on Wednesday, August 11th and Thursday, August 12th from 11am - 2pm EST. The focus of our event this year is: Who’s Missing in My Church? 

Together, we will engage in ongoing conversations about developing church communities that create accessible spaces for millennials and Gen Z. This generation has grown up with an education system that understands and responds to their needs, but this has not been the case in our churches. We invite you to participate in this conversation with us! Join us from the comfort of your living room for two days of conversations led by future leaders of the disability community! Find out more about this event by visiting our event webpage: bit.ly/whosmissinginmychurch

On Wednesday, August 11th, we are excited to have Zoie Sheets join us as our featured speaker for that day. Zoie focuses on expanding holistic accessibility and combating ableism. To start the conversation as we look forward to hearing her speak at the event, Zoie has shared this article with us:

The Urgency of Creating Accessible Faith Spaces

BY ZOIE SHEETS, YOUNG ADULT RETREAT PARTICIPANT

If I hadn’t been blessed with finding spaces and people that were willing to confront their ableism and learn quickly about how to form spaces that were accessible to my mind and body, I’m not sure where I’d be today. I’m not even sure I’d be a Christian.

I share the following perspective in the hope of helping other leaders address ableism in the spaces they create for young adult discernment.

Many of the places where I have found disability and accessibility conversations most lacking have been faith-based spaces. I’m blessed to find myself in heavily justice-oriented ministries, which speak of racial justice, LGBTQIA inclusion, and other ways to make this world better resemble our God’s radically-inclusive love. Disability justice, however, is rarely mentioned. This is a vitally important problem for three core reasons.

First, we know that young people are rapidly leaving the church. It is often because they don’t feel fully recognized and valued. Disabled young people— including those with often-invisible chronic illness and mental illness—are no exception to this growing group of young people who are unwilling to tolerate exclusion and silencing, even when it is unintentional. People with disabilities make up 20 percent of America! This is a massive group of people to fail to recognize. For the church to begin growing again and truly represent the body of Christ, access must be a priority.

Second, the world is too dangerous for us to not continue pushing for justice. We cannot achieve full justice of any kind without also including disability justice.

Third, having accessible faith spaces that understand disability from a justice standpoint (rather than a compliance standpoint) matters simply because disabled people matter just as much as any other children of God. 

Knowing it’s important to create accessible faith spaces and knowing how to do so are two entirely different concepts. There’s no step-by-step guide to creating a fully accessible space, but there are a few important things to note. 

Accessibility does not just mean ramps. Ramp mentality is dangerous because it allows us to forget all disabilities beyond physical impairments, as well as the mental and spiritual experiences of those with physical impairments. In addition, it is important to ask disabled people what they need, but this should never cross the line into exploiting their labor. There is a tremendous amount to learn online and through disability organizations, and not all of the educating should be the burden of the disabled person. This applies to leadership, too. Educating about disability should not be the only leadership role offered to disabled young people. Finally, it is vital that you take the time to seek resources, reminding yourself that disabled people are the experts of their own experiences and needs.

Using effective resources—while also establishing a culture of feedback—can create space for disabled people to speak up, without placing the full burden of accommodation on them.

Until my faith spaces took these steps, I couldn’t relax and feel comfortable enough to hear God’s voice, to discern my next faithful steps, and to feel brave enough to walk toward the path I feel called to follow. If faith-related people hadn’t taken these steps, I wouldn’t trust that I, too, am made in the image of God. I’m so looking forward to the day when our churches, ministries, and other faith spaces—which can include, really, all spaces—are accessible to each mind and body created in the image of God. 

(This article originally appeared in The FTE Guide to Discernment Retreats, pp. 40-42, https://issuu.com/fteleader/docs/guide_to_discernment_retreats_final_digital, and is used here by permission of the author.)

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