by Jessica Davis
Largely because of the pandemic, many congregations in the ELCA are realizing that they aren’t welcoming to people with disabilities of many kinds, and that the tools and strategies they have been using to make the life of the church available remotely were developed by disabled Christians. These are people who have been gathering, worshipping, and doing the work of the gospel in creative ways for some time, often after churches have turned them away. Creating dis/ability ministry teams can have huge beneficial impacts on how we do ministry together but there are some key things that should be in place in order for these teams to do this important work well. (Note: I often use the term dis/ability to refer to such teams to denote that they are intentional partnerships between disabled and abled people. No one is purely disabled or purely abled; we all have gifts and challenges that we bring to the table. Let the disabled people in your community guide your language choices).
1. Learn the history of disability and the church
Virtually every disabled person has at least one horror story about how they were treated by the church. From being invited to services they can’t attend because the building is inaccessible, to being removed from the clergy roster for needing to use a wheelchair, to having a whole room full of people pray that one of the most important parts of their identity be removed, the church in general and the ELCA in particular have not tended to do well by disabled people.
The church’s problematic relationship with disability stretches all the way back to the Middle Ages. In a time where the amount of disabled people in the population exploded, able-bodied people often wanted to feel that the sins of disabled people were responsible for their fate. These harmful sentiments continued largely unchallenged well into the 20th century. In particular, the church’s betrayal of disabled people during the holocaust and its fight to be exempted from the Americans With Disabilities Act in the U.S. in the 1980s communicated to disabled people that, though Jesus makes crystal clear in scripture that disability is not caused by sin, this was not the church’s position and they were not welcome. We have much to repent for: one sin that churches must own is that the exceptions made for them to the ADA were not because churches “can’t afford” to be accessible. If that were the case, the same exemptions would’ve been made for other non-profits. The exemptions were made because Christians successfully argued in court that it violated their religious freedoms to be told they couldn’t discriminate against disabled people, especially those with HIV/AIDS.
2. Listen to disabled people
Start with the disabled people in your congregation. What are the barriers to their full inclusion in the church community? Do you have a physically accessible sanctuary but a bathroom that is inaccessible? Do your food offerings consider the needs of members with severe food allergies? Do your services have unspoken rules against fidgeting or making loud noises? Do not assume that you don’t have disabled people in your midst, or that all disabilities are visible or physical in nature, or that they’re all elderly. One in five people in the U.S. is disabled in some way; if temporary disabilities (e.g. high-risk pregnancies, broken legs, etc.) are included, the number jumps to one in four. There are disabled people in your congregation. Invite them to share their needs and experiences and offer to pay them for their time.
Learn about best practices around common types of disability. For example, there are widely used standards for how to make websites and social media accessible. There are widely established guidelines to consult whenever building new structures that actually come from disabled people, rather than pursuing just the bare minimums required by the law. Hire a disability consultant to work with you on key issues. Educate yourselves on the principles of universal design. Connect with the Rejoicing Spirits network and the ELCA Disability Ministries network. Talk to disabled people in your neighborhood about barriers they perceive to feeling welcome. (Disability rights organizations like ADAPT and NAMI are great places to start. Avoid working with organizations that are primarily composed of abled people speaking on behalf of disabled people, rather than disabled people speaking for themselves.) Familiarize yourself with best practices around language (e.g., in the U.S., most disabled people prefer to be referred to as such, though there are some exceptions. For example, people with developmental disabilities tend to prefer person-first language, which highlights that they are not defined by their disabilities). Get this information from people actually affected and not caregivers or other well-meaning folks who insist on using language that infantilizes or denies the existence of disability (e.g. “differently abled”).
3. Start developing a theology of disability
In the same way that your congregation has things they believe as a community about how women deserved to be treated, how people of color deserve to be treated, etc., it is crucial to know and say out loud how your community believes disabled people should be treated. Read the work of disabled theologians and follow them on social media. Invite them to preach and teach (online platforms can be amazing tools for places that are physically inaccessible as well as during Covid surges). Empower the disabled people in your own community to talk about how their disabilities and their faith interact. Most importantly, let disabled people claim for themselves how they feel about healing. So often we want to rush to praying that God take peoples’ disabilities away. Because our culture tells us that health is the ideal, we believe anything that is not the epitome of health needs to be “fixed.” But that’s not how life is. Some people desperately want to be free from their disabilities. Others experience their disabilities as central to who they are and would never want them taken away. Many land somewhere in the middle. Avoid the tendency to make the argument that “Well, Jesus healed people in scripture!” What Jesus does in scripture is return vulnerable people to community, with God and one another. Sometimes that happens through curing blindness. Sometimes it happens by refusing to stone an adulteress or by providing food for all to share. What he never does is declare that disability or disabled people should be eradicated.
This is a lot to do before jumping in to start a dis/ability ministries team but it may not all need to happen linearly in your context. If a person tells you tomorrow that they need large-print bulletins to feel included in worship, you can start printing large-print bulletins tomorrow (after educating yourself on best practices for how to do large-print bulletins and asking people with low vision in your congregation what’s most helpful for them). But what I hope you’ll take away from this preparatory work is a hesitancy to make uninformed leaps or develop policies and procedures around what abled people think disabled people need, rather than inviting them into community to advocate for themselves.
Jessica Davis, MA is a church consultant, organizer, and freelance writer and speaker living in the Philadelphia area. Her ministry passions include: youth ministry, church music, community visioning, and education and advocacy re: diversity, equity, and inclusion. When not doing churchy things, she can usually be found knitting, volunteering with refugees and asylum-seekers, or working as a freelance makeup artist. You can connect with her work through Jessica Davis Church Consulting on Facebook.