Search for God
the Reverend Harold Wilke raised his foot to accept a pen from
President Bush at the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act it
sent a wake up call across the country. Wilke, who was born without
arms, has been a practicing clergyman since his ordination in 1939. By
his presence at that historic moment he demonstrated that people with
disabilities had some access to the religious community, but wanted
Religion gives us comfort. It reminds us that we aren't alone. It gives
us joy in the good times and support when times are difficult. When we
are in houses of worship we find the common thread that binds us all
together. It doesn't matter what faith or denomination someone follows,
when we enter a house of worship we forget our petty disagreements. At
least that's the ways it's supposed to be.
Religion doesn't serve everyone equally. People with disabilities face
many problems when it comes to accessing the religious community. While
some houses of worship are installing ramps and lifts to get people in
the door, the concept of physical access generally hasn't gone beyond
"People with disabilities are like any other cross section of people,"
says Reverend James Van Der Laan, a blind man who leads congregants at
the Christian Reformed Church of North America (Grand Rapids,
Michigan). "They want religion in their lives. However, the deaf, just
to site an example, have a very low participation in the church. The
church has done so little to accommodate them. People who are deaf seem
to feel that the Christian faith isn't for them because there isn't
much done to include them."
"I have attempted to bring the freshness of the disabilities movement
into the church," says Mary Jane Owen, executive director of the
National Catholic Office for People with Disabilities (Washington,
D.C). "I've been somewhat successful but it will take a decade before
real results occur. I’ve been stressing the need for real-time
captioning and audio descriptions. There are parishes that do the audio
descriptions but none, so far that I know of, that do the real-time
"Prior to my work with this congregation," says Reverend Charles
Bamforth of St. John's United Church of Christ (Baldwin City, Kansas),
"people with disabilities were not easily able to access all aspects of
the religious life here. Now we provide large print and braille
bulletins and audio tapes of services. We have a young lady who has a
significant speech impediment. She often leads our call to worship. The
call to worship is printed in our bulletin so that if people have
difficulty understanding her they can read along."
Physical access, with all its varied parameters, isn't the only
stumbling block people with disabilities face when it comes to becoming
a part of the religious community. Attitudes play at least as big a
role in keeping people with disabilities out. Some religious leaders
deny the need to make adaptations, contending that their focus is on
the spirit not the physical body. Still others blame the lack of
accommodation on the failings of human nature and the degradation of
society as a whole.
"I think the biggest problem with getting people with disabilities into
the Catholic community is fear," says Owen. "I think we as a society
are terrified of vulnerability. We're more impatient with vulnerability
and disability than we were even ten years ago. Impatience infects good
Catholics. It makes them think that disabilities need to be 'cured' and
that the cure might be encouraging suicide. This 'common sense'
approach has invaded every religion. It blocks people with disabilities
from becoming welcome in the religious community. Until people learn
that its normal to be disabled they wont be comfortable with people
with disabilities in the religious community."
Historically, people with disabilities have been placed in a
paternalistic relationship with the able-bodied and deemed unable to
fulfill the obligations of prayer and service many religions require.
You cant read the bible without running into people with disabilities.
In the Old Testament they are ostracized. In the New Testament they're
generally healed by Christ. Some feel that the latter was a forecast of
the final restoration of all things. Others feel it was a sign that
people with disabilities were never really accepted. What has to be
remembered when reading those ancient texts is that in biblical times a
disability often meant you had to be a beggar. It was only natural that
the able-bodied community took on a caretaker role. But this
relationship often allowed those without disabilities to disregard the
capabilities of those with disabilities.
Becca Hornstein is Executive Director of Jews with Special Needs
(Phoenix, Arizona). She is also the mother of two children with
disabilities. She knows very well the difficulties involved making
connections between people with disabilities and the religious
community. She also knows the history of those difficulties.
Historically, she says, people with disabilities were always cared but
they were never afforded equal rights.
"To be a practicing, traditional Jew you must recite prayers both
throughout the day and throughout the holidays," says Hornstein. "You
must perform certain commandments, and you must study. In the past
developmentally disabled people, called Shoteh, could not participate
fully because, even if they could recite the prayers, it was felt that
their recitations were empty."
These same, ancient beliefs are still carried by many in the religious
community. Though the wording has changed over the centuries many
able-bodied congregants are still skeptical about including people with
disabilities within their services.
"People who aren't disabled don't think of those who are," says Dr.
Rosa Banks, Director of Human Relations for the Seventh Day Adventist
Church. "I've heard people say 'we don't have time to help the
disabled, let's help the able bodied first'. I don't think most people
consider the needs of people with disabilities. They don't like being
around those with mental disabilities and they think that making
modifications to the churches would be expensive." "There are biblical
references that point to the idea that people with disabilities are not
accepted by God," says Reverend Wilke, "but I always go beyond those
specific references and look at the entire force of the Bible and
recognize that these passages are not really in line with the main
thrust of what the bible really says. The bible repeatedly sees people
as whole in the sight of God. The only disability in the sight of God
is sin. Any other disability is irrelevant. However, attitudes held by
the able-bodied community make it difficult for people with
disabilities to access the religious community."
"In Islam," says Mohammed Ali, President of Daar-Ul-Ehsaan (Bristol
Connecticut), the Koran orders followers to be compassionate to those
who are unwell or disabled. Every action done by a Muslim is done to
please the Lord. Actions to please people are secondary. Treatment of
people with disabilities is not paternalistic, it is compassionate and
merciful. Disabled are treated with respect because that pleases the
Lord. For example, Muslims pray five times a day, but people with
mental disabilities are exempt from requirements of prayer in Islam.
According to the Koran they are also exempt from accountability on the
day of judgment."
Despite all the problems of making religion accessible to people with
disabilities it is an important challenge because participation in
religious activities changes lives. "Religion is important to people
with disabilities," says Lorraine Thal, Program Assistant for the
National Organization on Disability's Religion and Disability Program.
"They go to places of worship because they feel connected with their
faith. It helps them cope with their disability."
"Whether people with disabilities want access to religion depends on
their background," believes Sara Rubinow Simon, Director of the
Consortium of Jewish Educators (Washington, DC). "If religion has not
been part of a person's experience then they wont know it's missing.
Where, historically they have been excluded or where their families
don't know this is an option there is less participation. But, now
people with disabilities are saying 'we belong here' and institutions
are coming to decided 'we want you.' Don Miller is a Seventh Day
Adventist who attends services at Calvary Church (Hampton, Virginia).
Despite having Cerebral Palsy & a severe hearing loss he is a
church elder. "When I first came into the church people kind of shied
away from me until I made myself approachable. When people at the
church say things that's are negative it just motivates me to do more.
When people tell me I cant do something because I cant hear and I cant
speak it forces me to try to speak better. One time I even went to the
pulpit and deliberately spoke too fast. That got people's attention."
Just as in other areas of daily life, access to the religious community
is becoming easier for people with disabilities. People are becoming
aware of the special needs of people with disabilities. Attitudes which
once barred the way to religious inclusion for many are now changing,
with the help of both clergy and laymen.
We've targeted people with disabilities and set up commissions on
disabilities," says Banks. "We ensure that all our churches are
sensitized and that our building are accessible. The Adventist church
divided into 12 divisions. Each Union in each division has a disability
coordinator and each Conference, there are 9 in each Union, has a
disabilities coordinator. We also offer a Disability Awareness Sabbath,
a seminar on disability awareness, where we teach people about
communication and attitudes."
"The community saw what we were doing at Temple Chai, says Becca
Hornstein. Representatives came to me to ask if I would help them set
up programs in other synagogues. Our congregation became a Mecca. Other
people with disabilities and their families joined us. While we had
about 12% of our congregants with disabilities the other temples had
none, because people came to us.
With no intention to start an agency, I was asked to help start a
summer camp for kids with disabilities in the congregation. The next
fall we moved the program to the community. The camp program grew over
the next three years. We incorporated under the auspices of the Jewish
Federation. We became a full-blown agency. Now we provide support
groups both for disabled individuals and their families. We run summer
camps. We help bring in whatever a congregation needs to include people
with disabilities. We help children get whatever they need in order to
reach their bar or bat mitzvah. We do disability awareness workshops.
Our mission is to help people with all kinds of disabilities to gain
access to all aspects of the jewish community."