The television commercials were disturbing: Traditional-looking churches barring or physically ejecting racial and ethnic minorities, gay couples–and people with disabilities. One tag line was “Jesus didn’t turn people away. Neither do we.” The national campaign, which aired several years ago, was sponsored by the liberal United Church of Christ. “We included people with physical disabilities in these commercials–in a wheelchair or with a walker–as an extension of the call and hope that churches would be intentionally inclusive of ‘all the people,'” said the Rev. Gregg Brekke, a spokesman for the denomination.
Instead, the imagery provoked grumbling from some denominations because of its implied critique of other church traditions. But at least when it came to the physically handicapped, the criticism had more than a grain of truth. Churches, synagogues, mosques and temples are places where people with disabilities might not expect to feel excluded, isolated or patronized. Yet that has often been the norm. For years congregations have effectively excluded the disabled from worship–by steps, narrow doorways and straitened attitudes–or segregated them in “special” services. Houses of worship (except those with more than 15 employees) were excluded from the 1992 Americans with Disabilities Act, which, among other things, bars discrimination against people with physical or intellectual disabilities–including access and architectural barriers–in public accommodations and transportation.
Most faiths’ scriptures mandate corrective steps, and pragmatism may soon require them. The U.S. Census in 2000 counted 54 million disabled individuals–one in six Americans–and that number is probably growing. Wounded Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans are swelling this population. Thanks to neonatal care and technology advances, at-risk infants with severe disabilities now survive into adulthood. Most significantly, the boomer generation is aging and getting ill. Many of them may develop disabilities but still want to pray at houses of worship.
There are challenges to accessibility and inclusion, even for people with the best intentions. The elderly and people with disabilities provide uncomfortable reminders of life’s fragility and of death. Those with mental disabilities can distract during solemn moments. Religious people generally want to be sincere, welcoming and open, but, like everyone else, they often lack the experience to respond the right way.
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