When he asked about my work, I explained that I help churches learn ways to include people with disabilities in the life of the church.
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Besides the usual accessibility stuff like ramps and accessible bathrooms, this dorm has built-in lifts, and pagers to call for help 24/7 from personal assistants (most of whom are also U of I students).
When we envision the diverse church, in our minds' eye, we see a diversity of skin colors, foods, ethnic identities, and languages. Usually, we also see we see the young and the old, male and female. But in our vision of the diverse church, we rarely see a boy who uses a wheelchair, woman who lives with mental illness, a girl with Down Syndrome, a man who is blind, or a woman who is Deaf and uses sign language. Why?
Last week I asked why we tend to limit our idea of diversity in church to ethnic diversity. Like one reader responded to the question last week, diversity of ability falls outside of most people's thinking because most people don't want people with disabilities included in their activities.
This guest blog by Alan Johnson, organizer of Widening the Welcome, asks how we talk about mental illnesses. He writes, "Language can be tricky. It can elucidate things or muddy things. So what can we do? Keep on keeping on working on language seeking to describe how things are. Perhaps the best thing is to talk with the person who is affected by a “mental illness” or a “brain disorder” or a “disability” to see how they see it themselves. This is all about relationships anyway."
Why is a church without people with disabilities incomplete? What do we mean by the word “disability”? What is ableism? In what ways are people with disabilities marginalized by societies around the world? What is “healing”? A friend of mine, Carolyn Thompson, directed me to a pithy statement called “The Accessible Church: Toward Becoming The Whole Family Of God” which she helped draft for the Massachusetts Council of Churches. Here are some excerpts.
Although we North Americans are getting better at emphasizing diversity in the workplace, people with disabilities tend to be the last ones that diversity practitioners seek to recruit for jobs. I ran across these reflections by Rob McInness today on why that might be so. He writes,
“Two thirds of Americans with disabilities who want to work are unemployed or underemployed,” says a statement on employment from the American Association of Persons with Disabilities (AAPD). What a waste! So many people, so many gifts and talents going unused or underused. It doesn’t have to be that way.
Journalist Ian Brown applied his skills to plumb the depths of raising a son, Walker, who has severe disabilities resulting from a genetic disorder, CFC. In his quest for meaning, among others he seeks out wisdom from Buddhism, from a shaman at a native healing center, and from Jean Vanier, founder of the L’Arche communities. As a Christian, I can’t endorse all of his conclusions, but reading about his journey helped to enlighten my own path. It’s something that some of us Calvinists call “common grace.”
The discussion last week after my post about the Tucson shooting brought home to me all the more clearly that mental illnesses do not affect “those people” over there, but they are us. Pejorative labels like “crazy” and “whacko” only reinforce this separation or stigma which hovers over people with mental illnesses. But the people who live with mental illness are not just those with the disease itself, but also their family members, friends, fellow church members, and society as a whole.
The first tragedy, of course, is the senseless death of six people and wounding of several others including Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords a week and a half ago. A second tragedy arises from the first. This second tragedy follows on the heels of every random act of mass violence.
Would you like to connect with parents of children with disabilities who share a similar faith story? Sara Pot began a discussion on our forum page. I hope you'll post a comment on the forum too, especially if you are raising a child who has a disability.
Let's keep talking about the affects of the Americans with Disabilities act on churches. How has your church been doing at including people with disabilities? What barriers still need to be overcome in building architecture, or in programming and communication, or in peoples' attitudes?
I visited a church recently. They worship in a beautiful, newly renovated facility. Every aspect of the facility meets code for accessibility: all on one level, pew cutouts, wide doorways, sloped surfaces, accessible parking spaces, accessible restrooms. Unfortunately, code doesn’t always square with the reality of living with a disability.
A new documentary, "A Place for All: Faith and Community for Persons with Disabilities" by the Interfaith Broadcasting Commission, is to begin airing on ABC affiliates December 6. Please call your local ABC affiliate and ask them to air "A Place for All." See Interfaith Broadcasting Commission for more information.