As someone outside the disability community, I thought myself an unlikely choice to write a book about the faith dimension of disability. Over two decades as a religion writer for daily newspapers, I had written just a handful of stories about the subject.
But the Alban Institute, a religion think tank, explained that in many ways I represented exactly the kind of reader they sought — people of faith without expertise or personal experience with disability. In the main, these were the congregation members and clergy who make the accessibility and inclusion decisions about their houses of worship. While plenty of valuable resource manuals exist, there was a need for stories that grip hearts and minds, showing struggles and solutions.
What I didn’t realize was how much writing this book — eventually titled “Amazing Gifts: Stories of Faith, Disability and Inclusion” — would change my own life and the way I see and interact with people with disabilities. I learned many things, most of them simple, which in retrospect should have been obvious.
Like, it’s okay to feel uncomfortable when first encountering people with disabilities; you’ll get over it, and they’ll understand. It’s also okay if you don’t know what to say at first; you’ll get over that, too. Many people with disabilities have great — if sometimes mordant — senses of humor, if you listen for it.
I learned that words and terminology matter. “The disabled” and “disabled people” can objectify people with disabilities, turning them into abstractions. A helpful memory aid is this slogan: “’People’ First,” thus, “people with disabilities.” A disability is something they have, not something they are. People use wheel chairs; they aren’t confined to them.
In researching this book, I asked members of the disability community around the country to share their stories with me, and they did. I also tried to focus at least as much on people who “cope with” as on people who “conquer” their disabilities, as inspiring as the latter may be. And I included a wide array of disabilities (physical, emotional and intellectual) and faith traditions, though not all are represented.
The resulting tapestry of stories illustrates what can be done to integrate people with disabilities into faith communities, in the belief that the house of God should welcome everyone. The relationship, I learned, is often mutually enriching. The stories offer examples and ideas that can transform any congregation into one that includes, values, and enjoys people with disabilities. The emphasis is on “best practices” across the faith spectrum, particularly on actions that require no large financial commitment or expenditure. Embracing people with disabilities in our congregations is not primarily a matter of money and architecture — although commitments to those things can help. For communities of faith everywhere, people’s hearts matter more than their budgets.
Those with disabilities can be invited to write first-person articles for congregational bulletins. Members with Down syndrome who wish to participate can be service greeters. Qualified volunteers can offer monthly respite support for caregivers of those with more severe disabilities, and anyone with a driver’s license can provide occasional rides to services and activities. Most denominations produce, at little or no cost, resource materials to make congregations accessible and inclusive.
The good news, I learned in researching the book, is that some churches, synagogues, mosques and temples are already welcoming people with disabilities and preparing for the coming influx of wounded vets and creaky boomers. They’re tapping technology and simple thoughtfulness to reach out in creative ways to this faith-hungry community. Still, it takes more than just automatic door openers, large-print Bibles, and improved signage to make a congregation disability friendly.
The bad news is that some congregations still resist making themselves welcoming, accessible and inclusive. Others that try may fail, at least at first. People with disabilities say that’s why they “church shop” before finding a faith home. And sometimes, despite everyone’s best efforts, disability sorely challenges faith.
Like me, you may find it difficult, as you read these stories, not to ask yourself whether you could do what they have done. As others repeatedly cautioned me, this is not the question to dwell on. Our only job is to understand and to help in any way we can.
Mark I. Pinsky is a longtime religion writer for the Los Angeles Times and the Orlando Sentinel.