Disability has always been part of my life. I was born with Spina Bifida, which happened within the first months as I was forming in my mother’s womb. At one point my spinal column was open and did not close all the way. I won’t go into the particulars about how the birth defect affects the ins and outs of my body, but I will say that I have never known life without the use of crutches or a wheelchair. I like to say these are an essential part of my wardrobe and I never leave home without them.
However, the disability experience is truly one that anyone can experience at anytime. According to the initial results of the 2010 U.S. Census 1 in 4 Americans has a disability. Think about the people in your life. It is without a doubt that you know someone living with a disability. Only 20% of these individuals have an obvious, visible disability and 80% of them have hidden disabilities, which you only know about if they tell you about it. And 83% – 87% of all disabilities are acquired, rather than that which people are born with. People with disabilities represent the largest minority group in the nation.
I believe, and was taught growing up, that God created me for a purpose like anyone else. I had extra obstacles to overcome, but the disability did not define who I was. I was God’s creation and He created me in His image. As I was growing up my family went to church on and off. There were not physical barriers to overcome as I was carried a lot and didn’t have to worry about getting into the facility, but there were a lot of attitudes about my disability.
Attitudes centered on the belief that I needed to be fixed, that the disability was not what God intended in my life. But how do you make others understand that the disability is like a blessing in disguise? A blessing because it has given me a unique view on life and a passion to pursue goals I would not have otherwise. It has also helped deepen my faith and rely on God’s purpose for my disability.
Is there a purpose for a disability? Many times individuals, especially those I’ve encountered in a faith setting or mindset, think fixing needs to be done to a person with a disability. If the person with a disability is fixed then their life will be better. The concept of healing has been one that I’ve had to deal with since I was young. People would approach my mom and me in the supermarket saying if we prayed hard enough or believed enough I could be healed. Sometimes they would even ask to pray over me right then and there in the aisles surrounded by food. Mom was always good about dealing with individuals such as this. She’d tell the person or persons we did believe and pray, but that I was fine the way I was born.
I was taught never to be rude, but to be firm in my belief that I was born the way God intended me to be. If he wanted me to be healed He knew what healing needed to be done. It was not healing on the outside that I needed, but healing within. It is not the person with the disability who has the problem, but it is the attitudes and physical surroundings around us that create the barrier not the disability. This concept is one that the Church needs to accept more of. Remembering that God created each one of us with a purpose, disability or not, we each have a significant role to play in the world. Why change what God has created? I feel that if God wanted me to be able-bodied he would have created me that way or provided a way for that to be. However, this idea of people with disabilities wanting to be “normal” and that prayer or laying hands must be the answer has come up quite a bit while educating church members about disability. Now I’m not saying that some individuals with disabilities don’t believe that if they are healed by God’s grace their lives would be better or they would be more accepted by society. But if we were all taught that disability doesn’t define who we are and what we can or cannot do, would there be random, well-meaning strangers coming up to me or others with disabilities wanting to pray for healing?
Acceptance of a person no matter what he or she has been dealt with in life – this is all anyone wants, but is especially true for a person with a disability. Attitudes and acceptance toward disabilities are a big factor I see within the Church. But getting into the Church to worship, now that is another story.
When I first started working at my local Center for Independent Living, I focused on accessibility within public places. My goal was to make sure people with disabilities could access every place anyone without a disability could access that was open to the public. But as I grew in my development of knowing the law I learned that churches, as well as private clubs, were exempt from the Americans with Disabilities Act.
If people with disabilities like to go to places anyone else without a disability likes to go, doesn’t that also include church?
For awhile we had a program called Entertaining Angels Unaware, which I took over after a year into my work. Usually a church official would request a site visit from a person with a disability. They would be assessed based on physical accessibility outside and in, communication access and attitudinal access. Many times common issues would arise during the visit, which would then be relayed back to the contact with solutions. The bigger issues included parking, stairs and lack of accessible seating. A lot of churches were older and required help getting into the building or exclusion from service because of no accessible entrance.
Imagine how you would feel if you couldn’t worship with your family or hear a great message. Luckily, I am not the only one that feels churches should do what they can to provide an accessible environment. There are many other congregations around the United States and in our local community, who want to provide an environment where everyone can participate. We get a good number of calls a year from Churches requesting a physical assessment. It’s great seeing that congregations are looking ahead and noticing the importance of an environment that is physically accessible to everyone.
What you and the Church can do to help provide an accepting, accessible and open environment:
- Approach disabilities with an open mind. It’s okay to ask questions and admit to feeling uneasy about disability. We all are uneasy with what we don’t understand, but asking and learning will make all the difference in accepting one for his or her differences.
- Check with your local church affiliate for a disability concerns or resource center. They may be working on education to local congregations about inclusion of people with disabilities.
- Start a group made up of members interested in addressing education on disability issues to the congregation.
- Complete a facility audit at the church. A facility audit focuses on accessibility and can help a congregation identify barriers. A general checklist can be found at www.ada.gov
- Establish one Sunday out of the year, Disability Sunday, to educate and promote Disability Awareness with your congregation.