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The Banner has a subscription to republish articles from Religion News Service. This story incorporates part of a July 30, 2021, article from RNS. The first seven paragraphs, providing context for the Christian Reformed Church, were written by Alissa Vernon.

At the Christian Reformed Church’s Disability Concerns 2021 training event this month, ministry leaders and panelists asked #WhoIsMissingInMyChurch. One featured speaker, Zoie Sheets, spoke on the topic, “The Urgency of Creating Accessible Faith Spaces.” It’s a topic the CRC has been mindful of since at least 1993 when leaders at synod, the annual general assembly, "heartily recommend(ed) full compliance with the provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act and its accompanying regulations in all portions of the CRC located in the U.S. and Canada" (Acts of Synod 1993, p. 539). That legislation passed in 1990, and it prohibits discrimination based on ability in areas such as public accommodations, employment and transportation, but religious entities are exempted.

Synod suggested a timeline of full compliance with all the provisions of the Act to be completed by 1996. That hasn’t been achieved, but director of Disability Concerns Mark Stephenson said it would be wrong to say “that the CRC hasn't addressed accessibility in a comprehensive way.” Figures from a 2017 survey of Christian Reformed congregations showed some progress: 35% of churches had adopted a policy on disability; 200 churches had programs for people with disabilities; there were 437 church disability advocates; the number of churches with an accessible worship area climbed from 482 in 2002 to 914 in 2017 and in that same timeframe the number of churches with an accessible pulpit area rose from 68 to 363.

These numbers “show significant gains in physical accessibility of CRC church buildings over the years,” Stephenson said. Changes in the other areas have been more mixed, he said, but the ministry takes a wide view of accessibility. That’s evident in an accessibility audit available online, “which encourages users to think not just about physical accessibility, but also communication and attitudinal accessibility,” Stephenson said.

In Canada, the Accessible Canada Act, whose purpose is to “make Canada barrier-free by Jan. 1, 2040,” applies to only areas of federal jurisdiction such as transportation, banks, and broadcasting. Houses of worship aren’t under that law, but provincial legislation mandating accessibility does affect religious institutions. In Ontario, the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (2005) requires all new or renovated public spaces to meet certain standards of accessibility. Whether it's mandatory or not, across the Christian Reformed denomination Disability Concerns regional advocates help member churches pursue the goal of “Everybody belongs. Everybody serves.” Currently 25 of the denomination’s 49 classes (regional groups of churches) have such an advocate. Many of them participated in the August training.

Sheets, in her talk, reviewed five steps critical to becoming a full part of a faith community: “physically entering the church and physical space; encountering welcome and acceptance; receiving invitations to lead and shape community; encountering theology rooted in love; and then experiencing personal and spiritual growth.

“I rarely get from that foundational first step of entering the space, all the way to Step Five, experiencing personal and spiritual growth because too few communities are committed to this work in a deep way—a way extending beyond ramps and signs to considering all the ways that someone will interact with the community, the culture and the theology,” Sheets said.

Her talk and others presented over the two-day training are available from Disability Concerns on the event website.

Encountering Barriers

At the end of July, which is recognized by some as Disability Pride month, Religion News Service spoke with some disability activists and religious leaders about barriers they've encountered in places of worship.

Rabbi Julia Watts Belser, longtime disability justice advocate and an associate professor of Jewish Studies at Georgetown, said most Americans don’t realize the ADA has religious exemptions. “Many people of faith are shocked and saddened when they learn about the exemption, because it runs counter to their own sense of religious values and ethics,” she said.

Watts Belser said that, as a wheelchair user, she has been to many churches or synagogues where she couldn’t use the bathroom. In some synagogues, she’s been able to access the sanctuary but not the bimah, the platform from which the Torah is read. “As a Rabbi who is a wheelchair user, this is a very stark reminder of the ways so many spaces weren’t built for me,” she said.

Madeline Jarrett, who has a chronic condition that affects her mobility, has encountered barriers at church. “Although I have been an active Catholic for my entire life, I have never been an altar server nor a regular reader nor a Eucharistic minister,” said Jarrett. “The primary reason for this is the lack of railings on and/or ramps near altar steps.”

While the religious exemptions in the Americans with Disabilities Act mean places of worship aren’t legally required to be ADA accessible, that hasn’t stopped people with disabilities and allies from breaking down ableist barriers.

Ben Bond, a master of divinity candidate at Yale Divinity School, noted that opting-in to accessibility is ultimately to everyone’s advantage. “All ability is temporary,” said Bond, “so we all have a stake in disability liberation.”

Because of a physical disability, Bond has difficulty using stairs, and when he arrived on Yale Divinity’s campus in fall 2019, he found housing at the school couldn’t accommodate him.

“In the same way that churches are exempt from making ADA compliant structures, the same thing happened with YDS housing—none of it has elevators,” said Bond. He soon met Daryl Denelle, a fellow master of divinity student who also found student housing inaccessible. Together, the two founded Divine Abilities, a student group created for fellowship and support for people with disabilities.

Bond said he and two other group members were hired to create disability-centered worship services at the divinity school’s chapel. In this role, the group has not only addressed physical barriers to accessibility, but also the ways ableist barriers show up in liturgy and language.

RELATED: Church Ministering With Families of all Abilities Creates Inclusive Profession of Faith (June 28, 2019) ; Conference Celebrates Ability, Belonging, Community (Nov. 11, 2016); Minnesota Churches Gather for Disability Awareness Service (Oct. 16, 2016); Church Worldwide: 25 Years Later, Houses of Worship Living up to Spirit of Disabilities Act (Aug. 5, 2015); Let’s End Disability Discrimination in Church (Sept. 20, 2013)

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