It was just another typical day at Lakeside when laity from all over our Conference participated in a disability simulation. Each participant took on various impairments in an attempt to not only experience disability, but to also consider how a person or family affected by disability might fully engage in the life of their own congregation.
Many participants spoke of finally understanding their parent’s experience with macular degeneration (a visual impairment that takes away sight beginning from the center of your eye and moving to your full peripheral vision). Others were shocked to consider how non-visible disabilities, specifically pain related and aging disabilities, make everyday life difficult. And still others were appreciative of understanding what their children with learning disabilities go through every day in school.
Disability is an “open minority” which means any person at any time can become a member of this group. Think about the last time you injured an ankle or your eyes were dilated at the optometrist’s office. You were for a few hours or days or weeks more limited in your typical functioning than usual. Some persons will always be a member of this minority group simply because their impairment is a factor of their everyday life. Regardless of how or why or what the disability is, our churches need to be spaces where each individual is honored for their inherent dignity and worth AND are invited into full participation in the life of the church, no matter their abilities.
It is not enough for our churches, and that really means the people of our congregations, to be nice to families with individuals with disabilities. It is not enough for our churches to just have an entrance for those with mobility impairments. It is not enough for our churches to say if we get a person with this disability then we will make accommodations. The church needs to be a safe and fully inclusive space now! Our physical, emotional, and attitudinal barriers toward persons with disabilities must be transformed.
Many of the disability simulation participants wrote over and over about wanting to create a safe space for persons with disabilities so that they can not only participate on a Sunday morning, but so they can lead and teach and fully engage in the life of the congregation. Creating safe space means trusting the person with a disability or their trusted aide to tell you their desires for deepening their faith and living it out, and for being part of the community. Persons with disabilities are not mistakes, they are not stupid, and we don’t need to be their personal savior (Thank you, Jesus). Persons with disabilities are also not our church’s poster child. Persons with disabilities are a person first and foremost… a beloved child of God… a disciple who may desire accommodations for their full participation in the life of your congregation. Isn’t that what we are called to do in our churches anyway? We’re called to engage all persons so that their gifts, talents, and stories of being a disciple of Jesus Christ might transform the world.
I bet you’re wondering how your church can begin to make strides toward full inclusion of persons with disabilities, right? Here are a few first steps your church can take today!
- Download and print the FREE Accessibility Audit from the DisAbility Ministry Committee (there are both mini and full audit options) and the Annual Accessibility Audit that fleshes out paragraph 2533 in the Book of Discipline. Create a team of persons who will complete the work of the audit and share the resulting information with the congregation.
- Schedule conversations with and listen to the stories of persons with disabilities in your congregation and community. Ask them what would help make full participation in the life of the congregation easier, what would they like to teach or lead, what kind of support do they want to offer or get from the congregation.
- Celebrate West Ohio’s Disability Awareness Sunday on Sunday, August 28. You can even create your own disability simulation as a part of worship or fellowship. Suggestions and ideas will be posted to our website soon!
- Read about creating safe space and honoring all persons’ inherent dignity and worth. Suggested books include Living Gently in a Violent World by Jean Vanier and Stanley Hauerwas; Becoming Human by Jean Vanier; and The Disabled God by Nancy Eisland.
- Relax and enjoy making real relationships with people who are different from you. You don’t have to be the hero, but you are called to be a disciple with all of God’s beloved children.