We no longer pour used motor oil down the drain or smoke cigarettes after a meal in restaurants or at church socials. Some folks object to such restrictions, but by and large most of us understand the reasons and accept the laws restricting our freedom to do things that harm others.
Except when it comes to disability law.
Synod 1993 called Christian Reformed churches and ministries in the United States and Canada to voluntarily comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The 20th anniversary of that call is a good time to reflect on an issue that synod determined is central to the kingdom of God. And it’s a good time to consider why we have not wholeheartedly followed the 1993 resolution.
About 20 percent of the population—over 4.4 million Canadians and 60 million Americans, including 3 million U.S. veterans with service-related disabilities—have a functional limitation or loss. Where can they attend church? An annual survey of Christian Reformed churches shows that most CRC church buildings have accessible entrances, worship and fellowship areas, classrooms, and restrooms. We have made good progress for people with mobility impairments.
However, fully complying with the ADA means far more than changing our buildings. For example, only 50 percent of our congregations offer aids such as hearing loops for people with hearing impairments. Even fewer congregations, about 40 percent, offer accommodations for people with vision impairments. Outside signs may be huge, but indoors the signs, bulletins, newsletters, and projected information often use small fonts, confusing backgrounds, and hard-to-read color contrast. Some research suggests that when it comes to accommodating differences, our churches rank last compared to other organizations. Making choices that exclude people with disabilities calls the church’s commitment to being salt and light into question.
Biblical teaching calls us to end disability discrimination. The Old and New Testaments prohibit unjust discrimination (Lev. 19:14-15; Deut. 27:18; Acts 6:1; James 2:1-9). And well before the ADA existed, the Bible said we are responsible for what we build and what we do (Ex. 21:33-34; Deut. 22:8; 1 Cor. 8:13; 9:27). The ADA does not promote caring for people with disabilities; rather, it prohibits causing harm.
Many people think of disability only as an individual’s functional limitation or loss. But disability occurs when a person with a limitation interacts with an environment or activity we create and control, and could make accessible, but do not. We could include people with a greater variety of ages and abilities by applying the principle of universal design, that is, by considering a wider range of human variation in the media, spaces, and programs we create. We could also offer reasonable accommodations for people who could not otherwise participate. By failing to apply universal design or to make reasonable accommodations, we commit disability discrimination. In the words of James 4:17, “So then, if you know the good you ought to do and don’t do it, you sin.”
Some reasonable accommodations cost little time or effort. Others may cost up to 20 percent of a building, remodeling, maintenance, or new equipment budget and may require training. Making this investment for the 20 percent of the population who have impairments complies with the apostle Paul’s teaching “At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. The goal is equality” (2 Cor. 8:14).
Why We Haven’t (Yet) Ended Discrimination
Disability discrimination is a sin common to us all, which is why a democracy has laws to protect people with disabilities. Beyond voluntary compliance, churches in the United States are required to comply with the employment provisions of the ADA and with local building codes that are not part of the ADA. In Ontario, the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) requires churches, like any business, to be accessible to people with disabilities or face fines.
We obscure the sources of disability if we think of complying with the ADA as providing optional preferences or favors or if we think of it as a charitable activity or ministry. If we think of complying with the ADA as an act of hospitality, we imply that people with impairments are strangers or guests, not regular members of our church family.
Ableism, the term for disability prejudice, is as deeply entrenched and as difficult to uproot and unlearn as are racism and sexism. Many of us do not want to think or talk about disability. We may even deny our own hidden impairments, including hearing or vision loss, learning difficulties, frailty, or pain. We may not know what resources are or could be available, how to ask for them, or whom to ask. For some congregations, universal design and accommodation may seem to be at odds with the most efficient means for reaching the most people with the gospel. However, fulfilling the Great Commission cannot neglect the great commandment to love one another (Luke 10:27-37; 1 John 4:20).
The world values youth and strength over the full range of human variation and functioning. In contrast, God chooses the weak things of the world to shame the strong (1 Cor. 1:27). Honoring father and mother includes honoring people with impairments, whose ranks swell with age, by complying with synod’s call to end disability discrimination (Eph. 6:2). We cannot fix all problems or include everyone. But we can, by God’s grace, become a more inclusive church (Luke 14:13).
What We Can Do
- Prepare in advance for people with disabilities—even before people ask for access—and make known what is available.
- Incorporate the principles of universal design and accommodation into all church programs instead of treating them as occasional add-ons when we think there is a need or when a volunteer is available.
- Focus Bible-based preaching, teaching, and example on this issue to expose and refute anything that devalues and excludes people with functional impairments.
- Adopt a church policy on disability; currently one-third of CRCs have one.
- Conduct accessibility audits in your church with the help of people with various impairments. Plan to invest up to 20 percent of your time and financial resources to include the 20 percent of the population who have impairments.
- Establish an open, functional disability discrimination grievance system as recommended by Synod 1993. Silence and secrecy will not end disability discrimination.
- Create courses and course supplements on disability awareness and disability discrimination in Christian K-12 curriculums and in colleges and seminaries.
When we acknowledge that we engage in disability discrimination, we can comply with the resolution of Synod 1993 by repenting, turning, and taking action—looking not only to our own interests, but also to the interests of others (Phil. 2:4). As a result, we look more like Christ.