Many years ago, a wise man declared, “The ramp is not enough”,
and he was right. Although architecturally accessible may be a good beginning for some congregations, it is only a first step,
and in my opinion, not the most important step.
In addition to architectural accessibility,
there is attitudinal accessibility, communications and spiritual accessibility. Each congregation must prioritize its needs,
explore the cost, and gather its resources. Few congregations will be able to become fully accessible all at once. Whatever
is done, however will benefit everyone, able bodied as well as those who are disabled. When a ramp to the communion rail is
installed, for example, mothers with small children will no longer worry about treacherous steps. When bulletins and other
worship materials are produced in large print, those who read the announcements or read the lessons (if the lessons are read
from the bulletin) will have an easier time.
Ramps, accessible bathrooms, sound
systems, and large-print bulletins all contribute to a congregation’s being accessible. But, if there is no welcoming
or respectful attitude toward those who are disabled….all of these renovations will count for nothing. I remember a
parish which was architecturally accessible. One of its older members had recently had his larynx removed and an artificial
voice-box implanted. He was delighted to be able to talk again, and he could not wait to come to church. Everyone ignored
him because they were unwilling to try to understand his changed speech
patterns. He never returned to that congregation. I remember a congregation in which the director of lay readers became a
wheelchair user due to complications of diabetes. Because he could not get up to the lectern, he could no longer read the
lessons. No one was willing to give him a portable microphone and have him read from the floor of the nave.
Many of our attitudes abut people
with disabilities are fear-driven. We are afraid of “catching” what they have. We imagine that we could not do
what they accomplish. We try to be helpful and help too much jeopardize their hard won independence. It is never wrong to
say, “May I help you?” or “How can I be of help?”
For most of the 20 years I have
been active in assisting congregations become accessible. I dealt primarily with architecture, attitudes, and communication. Recently, however, I have come to believe that I have left out the most important
part of accessibility – spiritual accessibility. People with disabilities are also children of God with gifts to share.
Many people with disabilities, especially those who are developmentally disabled, radiate God’s love. A number of years
ago, I remember reading about a parent with a severely disabled child who could neither see nor hear nor move independently.
This parent said that his son was his spiritual director. I have no difficulty believing that this was true. I also remember
a young man who was being prepared for Confirmation. He had cerebral palsy and was moderately developmentally disabled. His
parents asked the bishop whether their son was ready for Confirmation. After talking with the boy, the bishop said that he
should be confirmed with his class. The boy’s parents accompanied him to the communion rail. The boy turned to the congregation
and said, “Jesus loves me, and I know that you love me too.” The bishop remarked, “He’s ready.”
A fully accessible congregation
is one in which everyone is welcome and in which everyone shares his or her God-given gifts. It is a congregation which meets
one another’s needs and in which everyone has access to the entire life of the church.