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Disability Activists: Religious Groups Mustn’t Stall on Accessibility

Beloved Everybody, a Los Angeles community for people with and without intellectual disabilities
Disability Activists: Religious Groups Mustn’t Stall on Accessibility
Photo courtesy of Beloved Everybody

The Banner has a subscription to republish articles from Religion News Service. This story by Kathryn Post is part of a series on disability and faith and was published on July 29, 2022. It has been edited for length. Two paragraphs, one with context for Canadian readers and one with context for the Christian Reformed Church, have been added.

Lamar Hardwick, author of “Disability and the Church” and pastor at Tri-Cities Church in East Point, Ga., is known online as the “Autism Pastor.” But it wasn’t until age 36 that he was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder and began to identify as disabled. For years, Hardwick was told he lacked the social skills to be an effective pastor. But looking back, Hardwick realized he wasn’t to blame; rather, it was the church that had excluded those who experienced the world differently.

Today, Hardwick’s church offers sensory bags furnished with noise-canceling headphones and fidget objects to help attendees cope with overstimulation. The church has a room with a livestream of the service for those sensitive to loud noise, as many on the spectrum are, and no longer includes a moment for mutual greeting during worship. Hardwick said the hugs and handshakes can unintentionally sideline folks with disabilities.

“I found out that a lot of the reasons why people in our congregation are coming late is because they have social anxiety or OCD. They don’t like forced touch, they don’t like the attention to be placed on them,” Hardwick explained.

He told Religion News Service that churches ought to take disability justice seriously because there are probably already people with disabilities in their community who aren’t speaking up about their needs. After he shared his diagnosis with his church in 2015, Hardwick said, members opened up about their experiences with dementia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, anxiety, and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder.

“It was the erosion of that stigma that made it comfortable for everybody to finally talk about what they’re really challenged with,” he said.

Hardwick added that churches should prioritize accessibility because countless people opt out of church altogether due to barriers to space and community. The presence of physical barriers in particular isn’t surprising; in the United States, religious institutions are exempt from the Americans with Disabilities Act, which prohibits discrimination based on ability in areas like public accommodations, employment, and transportation. 

“In religious communities, there’s no way to bring the law to bear to say that you have to make places accessible,” said Rabbi Julia Watts Belser, longtime disability justice advocate and an associate professor of Jewish studies at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. “So often, disabled folks are in the position of having to feel like we have to ask for favors for everything.”

In many cases, if leaders in the house of worship don't think to designate a room for those feeling overstimulated or include bathroom stalls that wheelchair users can access, the burden falls on people experiencing the barriers to advocate for their needs.

“If your whole life feels contingent on other people doing favors, this is a sort of charitable model,” noted Watts Belser. “It becomes transactional. And it depends on a lot of people’s goodwill. You never want justice and equity to be dependent on goodwill.”

In Canada, the Accessible Canada Act, whose purpose is to “make Canada barrier-free by Jan. 1, 2040,” also applies to only areas of federal jurisdiction. While houses of worship aren’t under that law, provincial legislation mandating accessibility does affect religious institutions. 

Given the world’s growing population of folks over 65 as well as the long-term effects of COVID-19, religious groups can’t afford to put disability justice on the back burner. One billion people—15% of the global population—live with disabilities. As many disability advocates point out, if your spiritual home doesn’t currently include people with disabilities, it’s not because they don’t exist: It’s because, in all likelihood, they don’t feel welcome.

The Christian Reformed Church’s Disability Concerns ministry helps congregations pursue the goal of “Everybody belongs. Everybody serves,” taking a broad view of accessibility. Each year the ministry offers training seminars for its network of regional advocates across the denomination. Last year’s focus was Who Is Missing in My Church? This year’s training, running yesterday and today (Aug. 11-12) is Let’s end #AbleismAtChurch.

ⓒ Religion News Service 2022

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