Search for God

When 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 more.

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 simple mechanics.

"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 captioning."

"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."

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