Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you for inviting me to participate in this important forum.†† My name is Robert Bennett.† Iím a staff writer for WE magazine in Manhattan.† I suspect I was invited to this forum because of an article I wrote recently about religious communities and people with disabilities.† In that article I discussed some of the challenges and struggles people with disabilities face in religious communities.
Today Iím here to talk about two subjects your parents probably told you not to discuss in polite company, politics and religion.
Religion is a new subject for me.† As I understand it, religion is largely spiritual.† It is also, to some degree, political. Religion is an institution with a great deal of power.† It can suppress people and keep them in the dark or it can liberate them and bring them into the light.† Religion also has the ability to pull people together or drive them apart.
Re-read the bible, or, for that matter, any other religious text.† There, youíll see why many people with disabilities feel ostracized by the religious community. Youíll find references about how unclean people with disabilities are considered.† But, you might say, these religious texts are thousands of years old, surely attitudes have changed.† Well, they have and they havenít.† Itís really disappointing how little progress has been made from the point of view of people with disabilities since those ancient texts were written.† Talk to some of those in todayís religious community.† Today one can still hear religious references that suggest that people with disabilities are unworthy of being in godís presence.† Today people donít use words like Ďunclean.í Today they see us as Ďdifferent.í† These attitudes may not be embraced by a large part of the religious community, but they do exist and they are verbally and non-verbally communicated to us.† These attitudes keep many of us from participating in religious communities.† The preponderance of these attitudes have kept many physical and other barriers intact when they should have been removed long ago.
What it comes down to is a question of changing existing attitudes and practices and making people feel welcome into the religious community.
It is all well and good that some religious centers are installing ramps and lifts to help their disabled congregants enter the church or synagogue.† Theyíve taken this challenge on as a kind of moral imperative since the law doesnít dictate accessibility standards to religious organizations as it does to other places of public accommodation.† But, adding a few ramps and elevators simply isnít enough.† Religious groups should look at where the ramps and lifts are installed.† Are they easy to get to and operate?† Are they off the beaten track, making people with disabilities go out of their way in order to enter the religious center of their choice?† Itís kind of like going to your favorite restaurant and finding out that, yes you can enter but you have to enter through the kitchen.† People are made to feel unwelcome.† So too are people made to feel unwelcome if the door by which they will enter the religious center requires someone inside to unlock it.† And of course, at least for someone who sits in a wheelchair as I do, feeling welcome means being able to sit with the rest of the congregation as opposed to in the aisle. As someone who has sat in many aisles, I can tell you that accessible pews go a long way toward making someone feel comfortable and welcome.† Thereís nothing quite as embarrassing as sitting in the aisle when a procession is trying to get past.† Unfortunately this happens more often than most people realize.† I remember many weddings and funerals that Iíve attended where I had to shift my position so I was not in the way.
Once you get in the door there are still barriers to inclusion.† The religious community is just that, a community.† People in a community are used to greeting each other and talking to each other leisurely.† However, many people feel uncomfortable talking to someone with a disability. They donít want to offend but they donít know how to react toward the disability.
Don Miller knows this first hand.† Miller, a man with cerebral palsy & hearing loss, attends the Cavalry Church in Hampton, Virginia.† He says ďWhen I first came into the church people kind of shied away from me until I made myself approachable.† Itís really a matter of educating people.† The church and I do seminars to show people what to say and what not to say to people with disabilities.Ē
Miller speaks very rapidly, more rapidly than even I do considering how nervous I am up here.† He knows he speaks fast and expects people to tell him when they canít understand.† When they donít tell him he asks questions of them to see if they understood.† Of course they canít answer his questions.† By engaging people and directly challenging their comfort with his disability Miller breaks down barriers.†
Miller isnít alone, not by a long shot.† There are those people who want to enter the religious community but feel they canít because they feel no one will be able to communicate with them.† Iím speaking, of course, of those people who use sign language as their principle means of communication.† This leads me to another barrier that may lend an unwelcoming air to a congregation.† Learning about disabilities is often seen as difficult.† People donít want to expend the energies they think will be needed to welcome people whose needs they are unfamiliar with.† They donít want to learn a whole new language in order to communicate with fellow congregants.† This particular form of unintentional ostracism has convinced many people with disabilities that they need to form their own religious community.† And, unfortunately, this idea of separatist religion is growing.†
Okay, Iíve talked about getting through the door.† Iíve talked about the kind of communication that usually goes on within a community and how that community-forming communication might be seen as difficult by the a largely able-bodied, religious community.† What are some of the other barriers that insensitive attitudes can breed?† Disability does mean a need to increase the learning curve and it does mean a need for adaptation not only of attitude and structure but of procedure as well.†
What about those people who can not hear?† Many religious centers do not offer sign language interpretation.† That ostracizes a large portion of the community. Many people with hearing impairments do not take part in religious activities because they feel that the church offers them no incentives.† What is needed instead is the presence of sign language interpretation, at least at the holiest of religious activities.† The same can be said for those people who have visual difficulties.† Few religious organizations offer their congregations the opportunity to follow prayers using braille readers.† There may be many reasons why these accommodations are not made.† Some say itís a matter of time.† Others say money is the problem. No matter what the stated reasons are they all boil down to one concept, attitude.
What are some of the attitudes Iíve been speaking of and where do they come from?
One all too prevalent attitude is the belief that people with disabilities need to be taken care of.†† Religious institutions havenít always seen their role as integrating people with disabilities into their community. Instead religion has often offered a kind of paternalistic caretaking to those with disabilities.
Perhaps the Reverend James Van Der Laan of the Christian Reform Church of North America sums it up best when he says that Ö ďThere is a classic response to people with disabilities that we find in the church just as in the general population.† Itís a combination of avoidance mixed with a kind of paternal fascination.Ē
And, Sara Rubinow Simon, Director of the Consortium of Jewish Educators in Washington,DC says thatÖ ďThe deaf, classically, were thought not to be able to communicate.† In the jewish community they were protected.† It was a paternalistic view.† Developmental disabilities or mental disabilities were also historically excluded, or protected.Ē
Another classic attitude held by members of the religious community is that people with disabilities are incapable of fully participating in religious activities.†
Mohammed Ali, President of† Daar-Ul- Ehsaan Mosque in Bristol Connecticut, says, for example, that people with mental disabilities are exempt from requirements of prayer in Islam.† He also says there are also concessions made for people with physical disabilities.† If one can not physically access the Mosque they are permitted to pray at home.† Mosques are not yet equipt with elevators or lifts but there are always people willing to carry someone into the Mosque.† On the one hand you might see all these concessions as being compassionate but on the other hand it can be concluded that Islam has not found a way to incorporate people with disabilities into religious life.
And, Islam is not alone in their attitude of saving people with disabilities the trouble of participating.
Becca Hornstein, Executive Director of the Council for Jews with Special Needs in Phoenix, Arizona says Ö
ďTo be a practicing, traditional Jew you must recite prayers, both throughout the day and throughout the holidays.† You must perform certain commandments, and you MUST study.† For someone with developmental difficulties the rigors or the religion are very difficult. In the past developmentally disabled people could not participate fully because even if they could recite the prayers it was felt that their recitations were empty.Ē
Again, it all comes down to attitude and practice.† It all comes down to the desire to help people with disabilities become part of the religious community.† In few cases is it a question of out-right prejudice.† Itís just easier to let things continue the way they always have.† It is easier to let people go about their lives just as they have always done.
As Dr. Rosa Banks, Director of Human Relations for the 7th Day Adventist Church says Ö
People who arenít disabled donít think of those who are.† In an interview I recently conducted with her she said that sheís heard people say Ďwe donít have time to help the disabled, letís help the able bodied first.í
Faced with these attitudinal and physical obstacles, what can be done to help people with disabilities enter the religious community as full participants?† Well, the forum in which we are participating today is a good first step.† These kinds of Awareness Days bring the able-bodied and disabled together.† They give each group the opportunity to meet and get to know members of the other group. But, the limitation of these kinds of events is that when this day is over the dialogue often stops.†† What needs to be created and supported is on-going dialogue groups that will allow people from the able-bodied and disabled communities to learn more about each otherís challenges and opportunities.† A necessary product of these dialogue groups is a task force that studies barriers and eliminates them.† It may be a good idea to experiment, to see what each member of the community can offer the whole.† In this way everyone benefits from the strengths of the people around them.† This is how fear and misunderstanding disappear.† The result is a stronger and richer religious community.
Finally, there are a few easy changes that can be made to religious institutions, changes that wonít cost much but will have a lasting effect.† Iíd like to see every church, synagogue and mosque install a ramp so that people can get in the front door.† Iíd like to see braille and large print prayer books so that people with visual impairments can follow along.† Iíd like to see sign language interpreters present at the holiest of religious services, those event which have the largest audiences and the greatest chance of bringing in people with disabilities.† These few relatively minor changes will go a long way toward showing people with disabilities that they are welcome.