Disability, Inclusion and Church
Disabled people have long been heirs to charity. Receiving only what others give “out of the goodness of their heart”, we are not treated as entitled to the fullness of a share of anything. Subtly or overtly, faith traditions have taught the role of the disabled is to provide an opportunity for the abled to learn the lessons of generosity and charity. The disabled are a tool for the spiritual maturity of the abled and the spiritual path of the disabled is one of suffering, acceptance and humility. Not transforming yourself into the abled image, or healing, is a spiritual failure. The emotional freight in the phrase “those less fortunate” is enough to stop a train. It is the language we use to teach children to share and the language we use to leverage our positions of entitlement over people who often have lacked the same opportunities and resources for generations. It is the belief we somehow need to make someone else less to make ourselves more. If you believe in an inclusive theology, it is challenging to understand the practices and language most people with disabilities encounter in church.
I include this information on the education of disabled children to give you a social context, with dates, which reflects the general attitudes towards people with disabilities. Did you know we put a man on the moon (July 20, 1969) before we guaranteed that children with a disability were entitled to an education if the program received federal funds (Rehabilitation Act, section 504, 1973)? Prior to this legislation, it was sufficient for a district to say they didn’t have the resources or program for the child’s needs and parents and children had no recourse. “In 1970, U.S. schools educated only one in five children with disabilities, and many states had laws excluding certain students, including children who were deaf, blind, emotionally disturbed, or had an intellectual disability.” (https://sites.ed.gov/idea/IDEA-History) Think about how recent 1970 was in history. Only one in five children educated! State schools provided segregated education for a few, often for the blind and deaf. The education of children provides a social framework for how people with disabilities have been viewed. “Congress enacted the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (Public Law 94-142), also known as the EHA, in 1975 to support states and localities in protecting the rights of, meeting the individual needs of, and improving the results for infants, toddlers, children, and youth with disabilities and their families. This landmark law’s name changed to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, in a 1990 reauthorization.” (ibid) IDEA added the concept of “least restrictive environment” and opened up the concept of “mainstreaming” disabled children in the classroom with their non-disabled peers. For more information on the struggles in 1977 to update the Rehabilitation Act in support of the Independent Living Movement, watch the documentary Crip Camp on Netflix.
Press pause: I was not denied an education. I graduated from high school in 1973 because of two essential abilities: 1) I did not need educational support for learning and 2) I was mobile enough to navigate stairs and hallways unassisted. Judy Heumann, however, writes in her memoir Being Heumann, about her fight to attend school in a wheelchair.
Back to disability and church. This July we acknowledge 32 years since the signing of the ADA (Americans with Disability Act). While not perfect, 32 years ago it offered a foundation to challenge lack of access and began to establish some guidelines for what accessibility meant. It opened doors for making accommodations in support of the employment of people with disabilities. And do you understand that churches are exempt from the ADA? This was not an accident. Organizations and alliances of churches FOUGHT to be permitted to continue to exclude people with disabilities. Of course, that’s not what they said. They said it was about the separation of church and state (which seems to be a blurry line, especially for Christians). It was also about money. Churches are old buildings, often historic, and it would be too costly to make them accessible. If you question why church attendance (and not just Christian church) and support is declining, look at the flocks of people churches are excluding. LGBTQ marriage and just being who they are; women in leadership; the role of social justice and racial equality in spiritual life—these are hot buttons with organized religions taking positions that are driving people out of church. The disabled just can’t get in.
I would propose that we must examine the theology we espouse in relation to people with disabilities. Radical Wholeness stands for an inclusive theology which celebrates not only the divine within each one but the unique and diverse vessels of humanity carrying the divine in the world. If we can formulate a more inclusive theology and articulate it in meaningful ways, it may lead us to a more inclusive attitude about accessing spiritual community. Take a moment to reflect on your theology about disability. Is Radical Wholeness meaningful to you? Are there ways you exclude or devalue people with disabilities or if disabled, have you been excluded or devalued in spiritual community? Take a moment to reflect on spiritual community. Does your church or gathering offer accessibility and do you see a diverse community that includes people with various disabilities? If July does not find you celebrating the ways your spiritual community is inclusive of people with disabilities, then I hope July finds you seeking ways to advocate for change in your spiritual community. I hope you find a sense of radical wholeness for yourself.