It’s All About Attitude

Over the last few years, it has been well stated by advocates of the faith and disability community that significant barriers can and do exist in faith communities.  The barriers not only make it difficult for persons with disabilities to be included but result in unwelcoming and inaccessible places of worship. “If there are barriers of attitude, communication or architecture for anyone, the foundation of the House of God is weakened.”-That All May Worship, An Interfaith Welcome to People with Disabilities, page 5, http://www.aapd.com/what-we-do/interfaith/that-all-may-worship/that-all-may-worship.pdf .

Architectural barriers, such as limited or non-existent wheelchair accessibility are obvious.  If one cannot get into a building or does not have access to certain parts of a building, the message is clear: “You are not welcome”.  But physical barriers can be less obvious as well.  A church might have a ramp to the front door but the door is very heavy and difficult to open.  Although a greeter may be assigned during regular service times, what about small meetings during the weekday?  An inaccessible door like this could still be a barrier, communicating to the person using a wheelchair: “You are welcome to our worship service but we don’t necessarily want or even recognize your desire to participate in other activities or ministries of our community.”  An automatic door might be a solution here-giving independent access to the building.

Barriers of communication are also obvious but often overlooked.  These include providing alternative forms of communicating such as an ASL Interpreter, a Looping System, C.A.R.T. (Communication Access in Real-time Translation), large print materials or Braille materials.  If a person has a condition that affects their sight or hearing, they will need these kinds of accommodations.  Important to note; if your place of worship does not have these accommodations in place, a person needing them will not usually visit. The stance, “We don’t have anyone with these kinds of disabilities here so we don’t need to provide accommodations” therefore, is useless and most uninviting.

It is also worth considering communication accommodations for persons with developmental or intellectual disabilities.  Using visuals (for example providing a picture schedule for the order of the service) would be a way to bridge the communication gap with people who might find it difficult to follow along without visual cues.

But when it comes to barriers, attitude is by far the most difficult for congregations to address.  The attitude of people in the congregation, the governing body of the faith community and the administration can directly influence how a person or family affected by disability feels when coming to a place of worship.  The examples are endless, but let’s look at one:

A family with a young child with autism visits a church for the first time.  The family is cautious, feeling a bit awkward because, 1. They know their 8 year old has some typical autistic behaviors that make it a challenge to stay confined for a full hour service and 2. They have had bad experiences in the past trying to make worship work.

But they are here, at your church, trying again.

All seems to go well until about 15 minutes into the service when the child who has autism starts up, wiggling and laughing too loud, finally belting out a loud “ahhhhh…” in response to an unknown stimuli.

Other members of the congregation turn around and stare.  One mother, sitting with three well behaved children, rolls her eyes and whispers to her husband.

The family, now mortified, gets up and leaves…and they don’t come back.

Before you think, “This would never happen in my place of worship”, think again.  Research out of Vanderbilt University concluded that 70% of parents of children with disabilities would find disability awareness efforts, over any other accommodations, the most helpful.  As stated in Welcoming People with Developmental Disabilities and their Families: A Practical Guide for Congregations, written by Erik Carter, Courtney Taylor, Thomas Boehm, Naomi Annandale, and Aimee Logeman,

“Parents considered congregation-wide disability awareness to be among the most helpful efforts faith communities could undertake. Why is it so important to foster awareness and understanding of disability? Often, the biggest barrier people with disabilities and their families encounter are not inaccessible stairs, but unwelcoming stares.” http://vkc.mc.vanderbilt.edu/assets/files/resources/CongregationPracticeGuide.pdf

When it comes to barriers however, I offer up the following: Attitude is the only real barrier to full inclusion. Let me explain with an example.

A FIN friend of mine who lost her hearing as an adult and was looking for a place to worship.  She wanted to attend a large local church but needed some accommodations.  So my friend contacted the church, asking if they might provide C.A.R.T. for just two services per month.  (Communication in Real-time Translation-someone types what is being said in real time and this is projected on a screen).

The response from the church was almost immediate: “We asked our pastor and administration about this request and we are sorry that we cannot provide this type of accommodation at this time.  The cost is prohibitive since it is only needed for one person.”

Although the barrier to participation in worship here is clearly one of communication, the overlying barrier is one of attitude.  Because of the quick response, it was obvious that this request did not go beyond the front office.  There was no offer to meet with my friend, bring this suggestion to the governing body of the church for discussion or even investigate possible ways to make raise funds.  Because she was just one person making the request, the church administration did not see the need to further consider the use of C.A.R.T. or consider ways to provide this needed accommodation.

This attitude barrier could apply in any situation where funding is needed for making buildings or worship services more accessible.  A few people from a large, wealthy church in our area advocated for over a year to provide funds for an elevator to the second floor.  Although the worship services all take place on the ground level, the second floor remained off limits to a teenage who uses a wheelchair and wanted to be a part of the youth group class.  Although the church (and good for them!) temporarily moved the class to the one small available classroom on the first floor, it made the teen feel bad.  He did not want the whole class moved just for him-all the other children where upstairs in the more spacious classrooms.

Happily, the advocacy work, combined with an open and accepting attitude prevailed and a much needed elevator was eventually built.  With some education and awareness, the attitude of the congregation changed and funds were allocated for the project.  Several months after the elevator was installed, another family with a child who uses a wheelchair joined the church.  Imagine that!

All in all, my experience through FIN is that attitudes are changing and faith communities are moving toward positive inclusive efforts.  In our own local Hampton Roads community, more and more places of worship are beginning disability ministry efforts and programs.  In September and October alone, I and other members of the FIN Board of Directors have given presentations for six different faith communities and organizations, sharing ideas for inclusion and the mission of FIN-“to better include people with disabilities into faith communities.”  Barriers are being knocked down and attitudes are changing. Is your faith community ready to embrace an attitude of inclusion?  Let us know how we can help.  Join FIN and the faith and disabilities movement and get involved!

 

To reprint this article for distribution in your faith community or to request a presentation, contact Karen Jackson at faithinclusionnetwork@gmail.com

FIN Presentation Topics

 

1. “It’s All About Attitude!”- Introduction to disability inclusion in faith communities

2. “Inclusion 101”-Ideas for inclusion into religious education

3.  Disability Awareness presentations for children and teens

4. Contact us to customize a presentation that would meet the needs of your faith community