[Image description: Two graphics with a white background with a red border and black text that features two quotes by @Mia.Mingus on Instagram: “Access is a practice of love when it is done in service of care, solidarity, and disability justice.” — And — “When access is a practice of love it is no longer simply about logistics and something you have to do, but something you want to do.” At the bottom, centered: #AccessIsLove]
Disability activists have recently launched a campaign on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook called #AccessIsLove, framing accessibility as an act of love and a priority for moral inclusion — not an afterthought, not a burden, and not an inconvenience to be avoided. Throughout this week, I plan to write about issues of accessibility in churches, and as I do so, I want to lift up the perspectives of disabled people. (I also recommend following them on social media.)
How do we make congregational life fully accessible and inclusive for people with disabilities? In community participation? In leadership?
[Image description: A graphic with a white background with a red border and black text that features a quote by @notyouravgho on Instagram: “How we understand access is also how deeply we dare to dream, create, and exist as a collective.” At the bottom, centered: #AccessIsLove]
Church Buildings and ADA Exemption
[CW in this section: Homophobic Language]
When the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed into law in 1990, houses of worship and religious schools were identified as spaces exempt from compliance. As disability activists pushed for this landmark legislation, some church leaders fought and lobbied hard for a firm exemption for their own buildings. Some expressed concern about the expenses of renovations, while William Bentley Ball, a representative of the Association of Christian Schools International, became an influential voice in leading a movement to name these changes as government intrusion. He rooted his arguments in homophobia and ableism, claiming that churches, private schools, and day cares are “morally required (as a matter of clear and unconditional religious principle) to discriminate against carriers of AIDS where AIDS was incurred through immoral conduct.”
I learned about this particular history in Shannon Dingle’s excellent article, Resisting Ableism in the American Church. I recommend reading it.
Church Buildings: Still Inaccessible 30 Years Later
As a regional Chaplain, I am often invited to preach and lead worship in a variety of church spaces, filling in frequently for leaders who are away on Sunday mornings. These days, I find myself thinking quite a bit about inaccessibility as the legacy of the ADA exemption is still with us thirty years later.
— Sometimes, sanctuaries are accessible only by steps with no alternate routes into the worship space. Sanctuaries are often the central space for congregational life, as Sunday worship and larger meetings are held there. Inaccessible sanctuaries exclude people with disabilities from community participation and communal worship.
— Sometimes, entire wings of the building — often, spaces for education for children, youth, and adults — are placed on upper or lower levels in a building without an elevator or any other kind of lift. Inaccessible floors of the building exclude people with disabilities, including children, from meeting with their peers and participating in Christian Education.
— Most churches I visit, including those that are otherwise accessible for mobility, have steps leading to the chancel spaces in their sanctuaries. These chancel areas are the spaces of leadership where people preach, read scripture, choirs sing, and people make announcements. Inaccessible chancel spaces exclude people with physical disabilities from roles of leadership within a congregation.
And when it comes to leadership, I also find myself thinking… Seminaries are training disabled people who have discerned a call to serve in pastoral ministry, and yet… so many churches are inaccessible. How does this lead to a challenging call process? How does this lend itself to discrimination?
[Image description: A tweet by @Imani_Barbarin reads, “Just a note: the same inaccessible churches I referred to earlier are also used as polling stations.”]
In some places, the same challenges of inaccessibility within a congregation lead to inaccessibility in the voting process.
What Should We Do?
I do not deny that it is, of course, very expensive to renovate these buildings, and some congregations really do not have the means to do so on their own. It makes me wonder… What would be possible if there were large grants available for congregations to make renovations for physical accessibility?
I don’t have any big answers for how to fund these needed shifts. (Though let’s absolutely seek out those who do). But I do believe these are crucial, needed shifts we must prioritize. Approximately 20% of the population has a disability of some kind. If we don’t raise issues of accessibility, or if we treat accessibility concerns as a mere afterthought, we are excluding a huge portion of people — people who deserve to participate fully in our spaces and lead our communities.
And accessibility includes more than physical mobility accommodations too. So throughout the rest of the week, let’s consider accessibility from a variety of angles. Let’s keep lifting up the perspectives of disabled writers and activists, and let’s keep talking.
Here are some more pieces and tweets about inaccessible churches from disabled authors:
Tweets about Inaccessible Church Buildings:
I appreciate you reading and engaging this post. What observations would you add? Let’s have a conversation.
This post is part of a series. Feel free to check out the other pieces too: