Saturday, July 09, 2011

Ministering to Those with Physical Disabilities

This is another great post by my friend Marda -- Glenn

In the mid eighties, I attended a church which was specifically designed to be accessible to anyone with physical disabilities.  We also had a class, which I taught, for women with intellectual disabilities.  In addition, there was a Braille Bible and hymnal.  This church had both disabled and non-disabled people in it but it was made especially inviting to those who used wheelchairs as well as those with other disabilities.
Since the passage of the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) of 1990 increasing attention has been given to accessibility issues, particularly with new construction of public buildings.  Churches have traditionally lagged behind in this due in part I expect to lack of knowledge.  But in this church, all doorways were wide enough to accommodate wheelchairs, there was a ramp at the entrance, the aisles were extra wide and there was extra room for wheelchairs, walkers, crutches, canes and other items.  In addition, a ramp led to the choir loft, something I have not seen in many churches.
In an ideal world, all churches could be like this.  In reality, many churches are older buildings where making these kinds of accessibility changes could be difficult and some of these buildings are considered to be historic sites.  When this is not the case, however, there are small and inexpensive changes that can be made such as portable ramps, providing bulletins and other information in accessible formats  for the visually impaired, providing sign language interpretation if necessary and possible and so on.  It is tempting to hold off on accessibility concerns until you actually have a physically, sensory or intellectually disabled person in your church.  But the reason that more such people stay away from church is because it is not accessible.  It can feel like a catch 22 situation.  But we are called to go into the field, which is white unto harvest, and bring in all kinds of people, just as the story in Luke of the banquet illustrates.  (Luke 14)  If, as far as possible, we can make our churches welcoming to all and actively seek and invite them in, God will bring them our way and we will be doing our part to fulfill the Great Commission in Matthew 28.
The reality is that as more children with disabilities are living longer and as people age and face additional sensory, physical and cognitive challenges, there will be more people on both ends of the spectrum that can benefit from additional accessibility both in physical ways and in the personal touches that make corporate worship so meaningful.  We don't want your pity.  We don't want to be told that the reason we have disabilities is that because we lack enough faith to be healed.  We want to be included not only in the Bible study and services but in other church activities.  Sometimes it is difficult for people with disabilities to reach out because they have had so much rejection from people in general and the church in particular.  It is our responsibility as disabled people to do our part to reach out and minister ourselves.  But many people with disabilities, whether they are believers or not, are particularly sensitive to rejection.  When in doubt as to how to act, ask intelligent questions.  Imagine how you would like to be treated if you were in their shoes.  Then, treat them that way.
My prayers are that these articles will challenge you to think of ways in which you can make your church and your lives more open to people with all kinds of disabilities just as Jesus did.

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