For many years I have been actively doing “disability awareness” in the Church. Several events have taken place in the past six months that have caused me to think about and reconsider the importance of these activities. I have begun to wonder if my activities are useful or really make a difference.
First, I attended a new church (for me) on Easter Sunday. I was immediately impressed. The sanctuary is arranged so that the altar is in the midst of the congregation and members of the congregation have the privilege of worshiping in an inclusive circle. Equally important for me is that there are no special places for people with disabilities. Rather, the sanctuary offers adequate space throughout where persons using wheelchairs or other mobility equipment can choose to sit with family, friends and the congregation. The service was delightful.
My sense of inclusion was abruptly interrupted when a church leader came to me during the passing of the peace to wish that I would feel better soon. I realized she was relating to my wheelchair; not to me as a fellow worshiper. Her intrusive statement hurt and I wondered about her motives. Her statement seemed too hurtful to be simply insensitive.
That day, I decided she and the rest of the non-disabled congregation should examine themselves and choose (or not choose) to be inclusive of all persons. Only they can take responsibility for their intrusiveness and insensitivity. I decided that perhaps, we who are so heavily invested in doing disability awareness in our Churches are doing a disservice by taking on that responsibility ourselves.
The other recent event that has caused me to reconsider my involvement in disability awareness occurred when changes to “enhance” the accessibility aspects of our sanctuary were made without any involvement or knowledge of those most affected. I “stumbled” on these changes one Sunday. When I protested, I received an “OOPS, you were supposed to be told.”
Why were persons with disabilities left out of the loop in making these changes? Only the person or persons responsible for making these changes can know for sure. Those of us, who have lived with our disabilities and have experienced being left out of the loop on many occasions, can make some pretty good guesses. First, people just do not think. Secondly, family members who have or have had a disabled member may feel they are very capable of making decisions for and about all other disabled people. They may even feel they know best. Lastly, many people in congregations are use to doing good deeds for, not with, those considered “less fortunate.” There is often a real we/them mentality in the Church and no matter how hard we try, persons with disabilities will always be the “them” who are less fortunate rather than the “we”, therefore, we must be planned and cared for.
I do not know the answers to the disability awareness dilemma I find myself in these days. I do know that all of us, those who are disabled and those who are not, must continually examine ourselves. Be aware of our own perception of the “other” and the choices we make based on that perception. We must take responsibility for our choices, and allow others to take responsibility for their choices.
We must remember that we are the Church, we each have an obligation and the privilege to honor each other, and ourselves as sojourners in God’s world.