(RNS) — Too many disabled people encounter excuses when they ask for access to worship spaces.
“It’s not in our budget,” religious leaders will say to the wheelchair user who can’t fit into a bathroom stall. Or, “We can’t make that alteration just for you.”
Budget constraints are real, but too often, enabling greater access to people with disabilities simply isn’t a priority. At 15% of the world’s population, disabled folks are considered the “world’s largest minority,” according to the World Health Organization.
Once a religious group decides to address disability access, however, it’ll find that there’s no one-size-fits-all approach.
“Accessibility is a really broad category and means a lot of different things for different people,” explained Rabbi Julia Watts Belser, longtime disability justice advocate and associate professor of Jewish studies at Georgetown. “I myself am a wheelchair user, and I have certain foundational needs and accessibility aspirations, things that make me feel welcome in a place. But those needs, if you were in conversation with somebody who had a cognitive disability, or someone who is deaf, blind or autistic, their accessibility needs are really different.”
Though there’s no comprehensive checklist, there are plenty of ways to make churches, synagogues and mosques more welcoming spaces. Religion News Service spoke with disability leaders, scholars and activists to highlight their suggestions about how to make religious places more accessible.
Broaden your leadership. Who is making decisions about community programs, building updates and funds? If the answer doesn’t include someone with a disability, then odds are accessibility is being overlooked. “Part of the reason why churches have for the most part become unintentionally exclusive is because when they’re constructing ideas of what church should look like, they never include disabled people,” Lamar Hardwick, author of “Disability and the Church” and pastor at Tri-Cities Church in East Point, Georgia, told RNS. “And so naturally, you’re going to continue to create spaces that don’t include them because you don’t have their voices at the table.”
Check your minbar/bimah/pulpit. Ramps and elevators are great. But congregations should also consider ensuring that people can access podiums, lecterns and pulpits. “Even in communities that have prioritized wheelchair access, there’s often an implicit assumption that the wheelchair users are in the pews, not leading the prayers,” said Watts Belser.
Watch your language. Equating blindness or deafness with sin can be both alienating and offensive. “At my temple, we chant probably one to three hours a day. And I can tell you that there’s ableist language everywhere,” said Georgia Kashnig, a doctoral student at Georgetown University and a Buddhist practitioner. “What we chant in the morning says something like, ‘She cures those who are blind.’ It basically uses the language of blindness to talk about delusion and lack of spiritual awakening.” Take care to assess language for insensitivity to people with disabilities and be receptive when discriminatory language is pointed out.
Don’t pray without permission. As the title of Shakespeare scholar Amy Kenny’s new book “My Body Is Not a Prayer Request” indicates, disabled people — especially those with physical disabilities — are often the unwilling recipients of prayers asking God to eliminate their disability. While some disabled folks might seek prayers for healing, it’s never appropriate to assume. Plenty of people in disability communities see their disability as something to be celebrated, not cured. “Unsolicited prayers come from a place of wanting to erase disability altogether. And I think that they fail to recognize that disabled people are at the forefront of the work that God is doing in and with humanity throughout Scripture,” Kenny told RNS.
Don’t point. Post signs and accompany. Hardwick, who is known online as the “Autism Pastor,” told RNS good signage can be a huge help to those who are neurodivergent. “It’s anxiety-provoking when you go to a facility where you don’t know where everything is, and people are telling you instead of taking you.” Hardwick added that worship spaces should also train volunteers to accompany people to where they’re headed, rather than just giving directions or pointing.
Provide multiple ways to pray. Worship is enhanced when a congregation embraces multiple modes of connecting with God, says Bethany McKinney Fox, founding leader of Beloved Everybody, a Los Angeles community for people with and without intellectual disabilities. Offering multiple ways to pray, or reflect, or engage scripture empowers participants to worship in a way that is meaningful for them. “Create space for more embodied forms of expression, space for more emotional connections, space for different creative and artistic expressions,” said McKinney Fox.
Keep remote worship. Zoom and Facebook Live have made this easier than ever, but Watts Belser notes that religious groups shouldn’t go on autopilot when it comes to remote options. “(S)ome of the most meaningful forms of remote access allow people to participate fully and to engage in meaningful ways, rather than just defaulting to a lackluster livestream,” Watts Belser wrote to RNS. “It’s great to plan for multiple modes of access, because it recognizes the diversity of people’s needs and desires.”
Consider communication. Depending on their disability, folks might rely on closed captioning, sign language interpreters, audio recordings or large-print text to receive information. Noor Pervez, a community organizer and accessibility director for Masjid al-Rabia, a mosque and Islamic community center in Chicago, told RNS that religious groups should use plain language and “easy read” materials. “(P)eople with intellectual and developmental disabilities can’t easily participate if you’re not giving us the dignity of giving us equal access to what you’re talking about,” said Pervez. “This also has cross-cutting effects of benefitting people learning the language being spoken, or who haven’t had access to as much formal education.”
Lean into teachings about inclusion. Rabia Khedr, CEO of DEEN Support Services, a Canadian disability support organization founded by disabled Muslims, says many religions, including Islam, already account for the needs of disabled people, but adherents often don’t apply their own religious teachings on inclusion to disabled members. Kenny agreed, saying many people don’t really understand the needs of the disabled. “Ableism is in so many of our systems and structures and communities, but it’s really difficult to even get people to recognize where there is ableism, let alone change the culture to allow for greater accessibility.”
Keep at it. Disability activists say the work of disability justice isn’t just for disability awareness month (March) or disability pride month (July). It’s a constant effort that should become integrated into the life of your community. Says Hardwick: “Make it part of the ethos of your church so it erodes the stigma and is something that is talked about often.”