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From accessibility to inclusion

Congregations have made great strides in making houses of worship more accessible to people with disabilities. Now they must move toward including them as equal members in the life of the church.

The Rev. Brett Web-Mitchell likes to remind church members that Moses had a speech impediment and Noah could have used a 12-step program.

The point is not to denigrate these biblical figures but to remind Christians that in overlooking people with disabilities they may be missing out on some of their members’ greatest gifts.

“We haven’t taken the time to figure out what they have to contribute,” says Webb-Mitchell, writer, educator and Presbyterian minister.  “We’re clueless.”

Web-Mitchell thinks the church has made some progress. But as his recent book testifies, it has a long way to go. In Beyond Accessibility: Toward Full Inclusion of People With Disabilities in Faith Communities (Seabury Press, 2010), he argues that communities of faith have done a good job building elevators and ramps, providing sign translation and Bible guides in Braille.

But far fewer congregations have taken the next step of viewing people with disabilities as co-equals in the life of the church.

“The church is the body of Christ,” says Webb-Mitchell. “By definition that’s an inclusive body. It has a sense of equality that transcends able and disabled.”

To do that, church leaders must be willing to slow down and, on occasion, swap efficiency for effectiveness.

Others say congregations have made big strides in the past 50 years. The movement to deinstitutionalize people with disabilities only began in the 1960s. More recently, public schools have become laboratories for mainstreaming disabled students. The media — through newspaper articles, documentary films and movies — have brought greater visibility to the stories of disabled people, especially children with autism and Down syndrome.

“There are new resources, new networks and new books on theology and disability,” says the Rev. Bill C. Gaventa, director of community and congregational supports at the Elizabeth M. Boggs Center on Developmental Disabilities in New Brunswick, N.J. 

In many churches, people with disabilities serve as acolytes and ushers. And it’s much more common to see people with disabilities at contemporary church services, where they can appreciate the upbeat music and the freedom to move freely, raising arms and clapping hands, says Gaventa.

Newer megachurches have been able to provide children with disabilities with special classrooms, state-of-the-art equipment and specially trained teachers and occupational therapists.

But it would be a mistake to conclude that megachurches are friendlier to people with disabilities, says Gaventa.

Megachurch facilities, because they are newer, may be more accommodating, but such churches may also be more likely to segregate people with disabilities into special classrooms. Smaller churches, because they do not have the money or the critical numbers of people with disabilities, may have no choice but to integrate such people into worship and Sunday school.

“I’ve heard stories of acceptance and rejection at both,” says Gaventa.

About a fifth of Americans — 54 million people — are disabled in some manner, according to the U.S. Census. Those figures may be growing, especially as the baby boomer generation retires and confronts the challenges of decreased ability and mobility. Finally, more U.S. soldiers are now returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with disabling conditions.

The Rev. Richard Curry, a Jesuit priest who was born without a right forearm, has been calling on religious communities to help the veterans readjust.

He says congregants often ask, “What can I do?” as a kind of rhetorical question when considering how to help. He turns around and asks the question literally — “What do you do?” If you’re a dentist, provide them dental care, he says. If you’re a lawyer, give them legal advice.

“Able-bodied people think there’s a world of mystery around veterans or people with disabilities,” Curry says. “But the men and women who have a disabling condition have the same needs as anyone else.”

Curry agrees that churches have to move beyond accessibility issues and better integrate people with disabilities.

“Once you’re in the building, you want to be graciously welcomed,” he says. “You don’t want to be thought of as a burden.”

There is a wealth of resources for congregations searching for ways to better include people with disabilities.

For sheer inspiration, the public radio show onBeing offers interviews with, among others, Jean Vanier, founder of the L’Arche movement in France.

Finally, a new documentary, A Place For All: Faith and Community for Persons with Disabilities, takes an interfaith approach to the issue, with insights from Muslim Jewish and Christian communities.

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