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Michèle Gyselinck serves as the Regional Disability Advocate for classis Eastern Canada and the Church Disability Advocate at First CRC in Montreal QC. She shared these reflections on the 2020 Disability Concerns Leadership Training event with her congregation. 

As usual, this year Disability Concerns had a Leadership Training Conference, but it was held on Zoom because of the COVID-19, and the fact that the Canada-USA border was closed to non-essential traffic. Here is a link to the Disability Concerns Leadership Training Event Recap. This link will allow you to look up the videos of the six hours over two days that the conference lasted. On the first day the discussion was about how people with disabilities exercise agility to function in a world that is not designed for them, and on the second it was about how churches can exercise agility to accommodate people with disabilities, so that they can contribute to the life of the congregation they belong to.

Of course, for a congregation to show agility in accommodating their congregants with disabilities means they cannot continue to do things the way they always did. That would be selfish and lazy and would eventually lead to a church closing its doors. Much as some people long for the “good old days”, reality requires that churches adapt to their environment, and that includes people who have a variety of disabilities, some of which are visible and others not. That involves some creativity, but before we even get there we first need to get to the point where the Temporarily-Able-Bodied (TAB) move from the stage at which they pity people with disabilities and want to do things for them to the stage where they are willing and able to accept that people with disabilities can do things for them.

By now you have heard me use the phrase people with disabilities quite often. The reason is that as Regional and Church advocates for Disability Concerns we are taught to use person-first language. It is longer and more cumbersome than saying “the disabled” or to referring to people by their diagnosis, as if one would say “the cancer patient” or “the amputated woman”, or, worse, “the schizophrenic.” But if you refer to people by their disability, you dehumanize them.  People are more than diagnoses on legs, and we as Christians of all people should model a person-first approach to disabilities. 

Even if someone seems to have little to offer by way of service to you, they are still made in God’s image. Now we will readily say that in opposition to abortion, but when we are personally confronted with such an individual, how well do we practice this attitude? It’s one thing to say it when the person with severe disabilities who is non-verbal is so far remote from us that they are little more than a concept, but when they’re seated at the end of a row of seats or pews, and they make noise during the sermon, how well do we practice this attitude? Now I realize that I need to have this conversation with myself too, because I’m not particularly patient with noisy people, but I’m sure I’m not the only one in this church who might have this problem.

So then, how do we practice agility as a congregation to accommodate people with disabilities? We have already done some of the obvious work by installing an elevator, and wheelchair accessible washroom stall, although I’m not sure a woman in a wheelchair would be comfortable about going into a men’s washroom to use the toilet, but that is a discussion for another day. This is better than nothing. But even these things only address visible disabilities. What do we do about the invisible ones? They are far more numerous than you imagine. Even heart disease is not visible. If you see someone who has difficulty walking you might assume it’s because they have problem with their legs, but my mom has had angina since she was a kid, and it got worse after menopause. Now she can’t walk from her apartment to the reception desk in her residence without pausing several times to catch her breath.

I often stay away from church in the summer because it’s too hot in the sanctuary when you’re at a stage of life when you still get hot flashes and side effects of some of the meds you take increase your sensitivity to heat, but some members of our congregation oppose air-conditioning the sanctuary because they would have to stay away if it was because they are cold unless it’s hot. Others oppose it because it would cost too much money to do it. Though I realize we are a small congregation and there are limits to what we can pay for, where do we set the bar for accommodating people with disabilities, when their disabilities go beyond what we have already done? Do we tell them to go elsewhere because their disabilities are too expensive for us to do anything about? Or do we try to figure out ways to include them in our congregational life in ways that are manageable for both us and them?

On this Disability Concerns Sunday (October 18, 2020), I hope that you will go home to consider how to answer these questions in ways that will make the saying “Everybody Belongs, Everybody Serves,” which is the motto of Disability Concerns, a reality, and that when people with a variety of disabilities not already existent in our congregation cross our threshold we will be ready for them.  


This line in this article resonated with me " Do we tell them to go elsewhere because their disabilities are too expensive for us to do anything about?"  I have a child that doesn't do well with a regular service.  I have often been told about a church in another area of town that has a great program for children like mine.  I can only assume that a child like mine is not welcome at the church we attend?

I also think of us reopening at this time with limited numbers and areas that have to be kept separate.  With the way our zones are laid out we are unable to use our elevator.  This means there is only one zone that is available for those with mobility issues.   Once that zone is full the other zone is not an option.  I won't even get started on the fact that we built a new church and nobody thought about adding a wheelchair ramp or any disability access to the stage so we had to buy a noisy portable lift.  


Our churches can and should be doing more.

Hilda, thanks for your comment. Author and parent of a child with disabilities, Tom Reynolds, talks about the "cult of normalcy" in his book A Vulnerable Communion. If I understand him correctly, the cult of normalcy not only says that if something is good for most people then it is good enough, but also it goes farther by saying that whatever is good for most people should be good enough. In other words, it's not just descriptive but prescriptive. That perspective leads to people saying bizarre things like the pastor who asked me, "Why should we put a ramp on our church? We don't have anyone attending who uses a wheelchair." So, sadly, your experience at your church mirrors the experience of many others too. I've heard similar stories to yours about inaccessible pulpit areas (or jury-rigged solutions like yours when a little forethought could have led to a more elegant solution), parents of children with disabilities having people from the church encouraging them to bring your children elsewhere. All of this is exactly the opposite of Jesus' commands to love one another as he loved us and to do to others as we would have them do to us. 

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