I view life from a different perspective than many people do. I’m not eye-to-eye with other adults—it’s more like eye-to-waist or eye-to-chest. I’ve had a disability for more than 20 years and need to use a wheelchair to get around. Life is different from a permanently seated position. But here I’d like to focus on how church life is different.
I’ve been a member of my church since 1973. I love the members and the pastors who have come and gone in that time. We have a loving, caring, friendly church, and that’s only a few of the positive adjectives that describe it. Like all churches, we’re not perfect—we can all strive to improve where we need to. Even though my experiences will differ from someone else’s, I want to speak generally and, I hope, enlighten at least a few.
I may as well begin with the church parking lot. I’ve not had too many bad experiences there. My church has reserved a spot for me, and when I’ve visited other churches there has always been an open handicapped parking space. The biggest difficulties I face in parking lots are weather related.
When there is a covered drop-off area I have no problem. But when there isn’t it can be quite an adventure. My transfer board (a device that helps me slide from the car seat into the wheelchair) gets wet when it rains, which makes sliding on it hard. In the winter, if the parking lot isn’t cleared well the chair doesn’t get through easily, since wheelchairs and snow do not get along. Thankfully, our parking lot is always cleared. (I’ve had problems in store parking lots, but that’s another story.)
I also have problems when someone parks too close to me. I have to open the car door all the way to get my wheelchair as close as I need it. (The solution to all parking lot problems would be, of course, to suddenly develop superpowers so I could snap my fingers and get from one place to another, but I don’t see that happening any time soon.)
Inside the church, the first barrier I run across is the coat rack. I have someone drive me to church, and that person always hangs up my coat. But if I were alone I would need to ask for help since the hangers are too high for me to reach. It’s not a big deal, but it’s a barrier easily overlooked.
More important, when you use a wheelchair it can make a big difference where you sit during the service. In particular I notice the slope of the floor. The greater the slope, the more uncomfortable it is to sit and the more difficult it is to leave. I remember one church where the floor was so slanted I felt like I was going to fall forward out of my chair. That’s not the way I would choose to be noticed.
One thing that can be both good and bad is when churches use a projection screen for music. The good thing is that the screen eliminates the need to handle a songbook, which can be clumsy. But it’s impossible for me to benefit from the screen if people are standing in front of me. Sometimes a church will provide a song sheet so I do not need to see the screen. In churches that do not use projection screens, it would be nice if ushers had extra songbooks and Bibles to offer, since there are usually only enough books for the people in the pew, and not every church has shortened pews for wheelchairs.
Many people with disabilities drive, but I happen to be one who doesn’t. A family member always gives me a ride to church on Sunday, and I know I can rely on a couple of friends if I need to. The problem I have is with special activities that occur during the week. I know whenever I want to go I can ask for a ride and one will be found, but asking can be very difficult at times. It would be so nice, and much appreciated, if a ride were offered. Would it be so hard to contact people in the church who are disabled and elderly to tell them that if they want to attend an event a ride will be available? There have been times when I have not attended something simply because I had no ride. (If only those superpowers were real.)
My church has done a good job of encouraging me to participate in different aspects of congregational life. One year I helped in Sunday school, I helped out in the library for a while, and I currently write profile articles for our monthly newsletter. I’ve started working with our prayer line, and I attend a women’s Bible study. I was even asked but turned down an offer to join the handbell choir.
It’s nice to feel valued for my abilities instead of judged by my disabilities. Of course, there are things I would love to do that would be difficult because of my disability. My advice to all churches is to discover the abilities people have and find a way the church can benefit from them. Realize too that a person’s lack of involvement is not always because the person isn’t interested—sometimes he or she needs only to be asked.
These are just a few observations I’ve made from living on wheels. I feel blessed to be a member of my church, and if we can work together to keep improving, then that blessing will continue to expand.
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Don’t miss this week’s must-read articles:
- Tell A Better Story
- ‘Rebirth’ for a Wisconsin Church
- Book review: A Church Called Tov, by Laura Barringer and Scot McKnight