A Place for All

Volume 47, Issue 2, By Michael J. Crosbie

 

We are all broken, in some way.

Many feel broken spiritually, which draws us to a faith community, perhaps in the hope that our brokenness will find mending. Others are physically broken: arms and legs that don’t do what we want them to do, eyes that don’t see as well as they once did, ears that lose the highs and lows of prayer and song in the world around us. Some of us are broken from birth, while the abilities of others have been gnawed by the tooth of time. Our bodies fail us, and we might be driven by the same desire to find a form of mending in a community of the spirit. If we seek that community in a religious building, our access might be barred: the steps are too challenging, the walk is too far, the light too dim, the sound too loud or too soft. We might feel embarrassed by our disability; we don’t want to cause a fuss, we don’t want to call attention to ourselves. But we also ache to be part of this community of faith.

The people in our congregations who are not with us because of disabilities are the missing ones, the members of our faith community who can’t or won’t come because the physical challenges are too great. Approximately 56 million people in the U.S. have some form of disability—about one in six. A survey by the Kessler Foundation and the National Organization on Disability found that it is far more common for people with disabilities to stay away from a house of worship than it is for those who are able-bodied: 57 percent, versus 50 percent; those with the greatest physical challenges are even less likely to attend. The 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act requires buildings to be accessible or accommodations to be made for the disabled, but religious facilities are exempt from many of these provisions. Today, more congregations see accessibility less as a legal requirement than as a moral imperative. Communities of faith dedicated to inclusivity are making greater efforts to enable everyone to feel welcome and to attend. Mark I. Pinsky’s book, Amazing Gifts: Stories of Faith, Disability, and Inclusion tells the tales of many who found welcome in faith communities and how those communities were changed by their presence. The relatively new field of Disability Theology considers the spiritual role that brokenness fulfills in the human relationship to God’s divinity.

On a more practical level, how do we know if our religious buildings are living up to our commitment to inclusion? Faith communities can benefit greatly from an interfaith publication created jointly by the Unitarian Universalist Association and the United Methodist Church. “Accessibility Information for Unitarian Universalist Churches” is a resource that any house of worship can use, no matter what the faith tradition. Available free online at bit.ly/uuamanual, the guide can help congregations think about the nature of disability, the challenges of several common disabilities and of those not so common or hidden. A great tool is the Accessibility Audit, which takes one step-by-step through a facility assessment: arrival, getting into the building, ramps and accessible routes, various interior spaces including the sanctuary and fellowship spaces, accessibility for staff and clergy, moving between levels, and the grounds around the facility. There is an ample section on other information resources, standards, building materials, and equipment. Such a resource can make one think about and see one’s house of worship in new, accessible ways.

Michael J. Crosbie is the Editor-in-Chief of Faith & Form and can be reached by email at [email protected]

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