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Designing Community for All: How does the RCA include people with disabilities?

By Ruth Stegeman

Where were you 20 years ago this summer? A few of you may have attended the 1990 RCA General Synod in Orange City, Iowa, where synod president Sylvio J. Scorza centered his report on inclusion, quoting the text, "Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest" (Matthew 11:28). A longtime wheelchair user and professor in Northwestern College's religion department, Scorza shared a vision of God's kingdom in which everyone is a participant and contributor. Highlighting people with disabilities among others in our churches who have been marginalized, Scorza explained that "our Lord Jesus Christ invites all who feel excluded or alienated to come to him."

Help for Your Church

Is your congregation accessible, inclusive, and missional in the way it is engaging and engaged by people with disabilities? Visit www.rca.org/disability to:

  • Connect with RCA coordinator for disability concerns Terry DeYoung (also available at tdeyoung@rca.org or 616-541-0855).
  • Get information on identifying a disability advocate to better support your church's efforts to fully include people with disabilities.
  • Read Breaking Barriers, a quarterly newsletter from RCA Disability Concerns.

Scorza's report, delivered in early June 1990, culminated his yearlong term as General Synod president. Weeks later, on July 26, U.S. President George H. W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), legislating physical and program accessibility for organizations, businesses, and government along with reasonable accommodations for qualified employees with disabilities. This timely law seemed positioned to stimulate progress toward Scorza's vision, with exciting and dramatic possibilities for inclusion of people with disabilities in RCA churches.

But as it turned out, churches were not affected by the ADA.* Lobbyists for the religious community had successfully argued that separation of church and state should exempt them from the new law. Behind this argument was the fear of high costs of renovating historical buildings and church basements with more steps than the Lincoln Memorial.

Two decades later, as we mark the 20-year anniversary of the ADA, perhaps it's time for truth and reconciliation.

"Disability" Defined

Context is a factor in any attempt to define disability:

  • According to the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act of 2008, a disability is a "physical or mental impairment that significantly limits one or more major life activity."
  • The United Nations defines disability as "long-term physical, mental, intellectual, or sensory impairments which in interaction with various barriers may hinder full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others."
  • Six broad disability categories include: hearing, visual, mental, cognitive, physical, and multiple.
  • Disabilities are either congenital (15 percent) or acquired (85 percent, with aging as the top cause, followed by injury and illness).
  • Disability types can be obvious/visible (about 20 percent), or hidden (80 percent), or both.

The truth is churches are lagging behind. The culture as a whole seems to be at the tipping point where the momentum for inclusion is becoming unstoppable. Leading the way are large businesses working hard to demonstrate their commitment to accessibility and diversity in order to reflect customer demographics and attract and keep talented workers. The freshest talent, sometimes called millennials, holds diversity as a core value, demanding commitment to inclusion in the workplace. Aging baby boomers, who are rapidly acquiring disabilities and have no intention of leaving their jobs any time soon, are calling for accessibility and work accommodations.

The ADA has accomplished what a good law should--it inaugurated a fundamental cultural belief that everyone should be able to get into public buildings, use transit systems, and access programs and services. Along the way, we began to realize that having all of our citizens participate and contribute is good for business and good for our communities. So it's not just about the law anymore. It is about designing community--a place where everyone is a full citizen, where everyone belongs.

Other movements are building on the ADA's scaffolding:

  • The "Complete Streets" movement promotes streets designed for everyone, whether walker or wheelchair user or biker.
  • Urban designers are creating walkable communities with convenient transit options that are attractive to both millennials and aging boomers.
  • Touting universal design, builders are building homes with no-step entrances and wider hallways and doorways.

All of these initiatives benefit people with disabilities and work for everyone else.

In contrast, and partly because places of worship are exempt from the law, many churches have missed this cultural shift in two significant ways.

First, we have not made participation for people with disabilities a priority. Accessibility seems like a good idea, but general ministry costs and other competing needs come before elevators and redesigned entrances. We often wait until someone in our own congregation acquires a physical disability, and then we think about building a ramp or cutting out a section of pew. How often do we consider those who have never come simply because they can't get in? Rather than normalizing accessibility, we think we're going above and beyond when we install a loop system for people with hearing impairments.

By the Numbers (in the U.S.)

  • 54 million Americans live with a disability.
  • Of 33 million working-age people with disabilities (ages 16-64), 21 percent are working, compared to 59 percent of people without disabilities.
  • 85 percent of adults without disabilities have Internet access, compared to 54 percent of adults with disabilities.
  • Although their interest in religion is identical, the percentage of people with disabilities who attend church (25 percent) is about half of the percentage of the population without disabilities who attend church (45 percent).

Sometimes we settle for creating separate programs, especially for people with developmental disabilities. In doing so, we neglect taking the next step toward full inclusion, failing to ask the difficult questions: How do we include these same individuals in our early morning Bible studies, or how do we make a sermon more comprehensible to people with cognitive disabilities?

Second, we have been even less successful in achieving Scorza's vision of valuing the contributions of people with disabilities to the church's ongoing life and ministry. We usually view disabilities as deficits and people with disabilities as needy; as a result, we focus too much on how to help and too little on how to engage. Do we ask about the gifts of people with disabilities--perhaps gifts of compassion, of greeting and connecting, of teaching, of nurturing others, of love for children--in order to harness those gifts toward the greater good? When we see only the disability, too many people remain on the edges of our faith communities.

How can we redeem our narrow view of disability and reconcile our faith communities to a broader vision of God's kingdom? How might churches address barriers to inclusion that still exist in faith communities, and realize Scorza's vision?

First, let's consider an important paradigm shift, beginning with the imperative from the disability rights movement--no pity. No pity means no tokenism, no condescension, no segregation, no discrimination, and no entitlement. Just like everyone else, people with disabilities want two things: equal access and equal opportunity. In our faith communities, let's focus on gifts and assets, envision the possibility of what each can offer, and hold everyone accountable as member and owner.

By the Numbers (in Canada)

  • 4.9 million Canadians live with a disability (14.5 percent).
  • 44 percent of those 65 and older live with a disability.
  • More than 20 percent of Canadians will live with mental illness at some point in their life.

Next, looking to those with disabilities for leadership, let's begin conversations with people with disabilities. Ask people to describe their world, and listen carefully. Ask about their issues, their feelings, and what is helping or hindering their full participation and contributions. Encourage people to name their gifts. Ask what would increase the sense that they belong to this faith community. Finally, ask who will commit to contribute their gifts toward the possibility of greater inclusion or to any other aspect of church life.

With these conversations in mind, contact a local disability organization and request a thorough accessibility audit. Such an audit can include low-cost and higher cost recommendations to improve accessibility to programs and services. To find such organizations in the United States and Canada, search www.ilru.org/html/publications/directory. Disability and Business Technical Assistance Centers (DBTAC) also offer valuable information about implementing the ADA. Find the DBTAC that serves your region at www.adata.org. Internationally, the World Institute on Disability can be of assistance; see www.wid.org.

"'You are included' is rooted in Christ's invitation to all of us," Scorza said in his 1990 General Synod address. Our response to Scorza's call to action is long overdue.

The RCA is making progress:

  • In 2009, it hired a coordinator of disability concerns to assist churches desiring to be more accessible, inclusive, and missional in the way they engage people with disabilities.
  • Many churches have placed a priority on accessibility by making improvements to entrances, restrooms, sanctuary seating, sound systems, printed materials, etc. (For specific examples, read the Summer 2010 Breaking Barriers newsletter, available at www.rca.org/disability.)
  • Some churches have worked hard to engage people with disabilities by identifying and utilizing their gifts and placing them in leadership positions.

Still, the church has much work ahead if it wants to catch up with the culture's awareness toward people with disabilities. In this year when the twentieth anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act is celebrated, it's helpful to remember Scorza's parallel vision for the RCA, echoing the invitation of Jesus. All of this can be done with the spirit of inclusion in our hearts and a commitment to see our churches fully engage people with disabilities, becoming communities where everyone can participate, contribute, and belong.

Ruth Stegeman is executive director of Disability Network/Lakeshore in Holland, Michigan, and is a deacon at Second Reformed Church in Zeeland, Michigan.

*There are two exceptions to this generalization: Places of worship with 15 or more employees are required to follow the employment provisions of Title I of the ADA. Under Title III, places of worship renting space for public events such as concerts or conferences are obligated to make their facilities accessible. Although the federal law exempts churches, states and municipalities may be more restrictive, so churches should check with local building officials regarding compliance with local codes.

Posted 10/01/10

We sent this article to a sample of our readers and asked them to respond to these questions. Add your two cents below.

Does legislation like the ADA have a place in the church?

It is still best to keep church and state separate, but if it is good and right the church should be the leader and not the follower.
--Steve Abma
Rock Valley, Iowa

I see no reason why the church should be exempt from making facilities available to the disabled.
--Pat Williams
Holland, Michigan

Absolutely. We are called to speak out against oppression--not to simply pray for change.
--Sharon Schramel
Chicago, Illinois

Love is hard to legislate.
--Michael Brady
Schenectady, New York

We do not need laws to make us do what we already should be doing in our churches.
--Ryan Hoekstra
Sioux Center, Iowa

Has the RCA fulfilled Scorza's vision or fallen short?

The RCA has fallen short of Scorza's vision. Congregations have used the exemption to the ADA to rationalize asking, "What do we think we can afford?" rather than, "What does the Lord want us to do?"
--Phillip Sneller
Sheboygan, Wisconsin

Conversations are usually a strong point for the RCA. Execution, however, usually takes a painstakingly long time.
--Sharon Schramel
Chicago, Illinois

Even though we are late in taking some of these steps, we are at least making progress.
--Pete Burrill
Chatham, Ontario

What attitudinal barriers to inclusion still exist, and how might they be addressed?

A major barrier is pride and arrogance. We tend to think that we are more gifted and important than people with disabilities, but the truth is that we are all equal.
--Ryan Hoekstra
Sioux Center, Iowa

A limited idea of what "disabilities" means, and an equally limited concept of what it's possible for people with disabilities to do. I think the best way to address these things is simply through exposure to a variety of people who are challenged physically and mentally in different ways. We are more likely to change when we perceive this to be about people rather than an abstract issue.
--Stacey Midge
Schenectady, New York

How have the gifts of people with disabilities contributed to your congregation's ministry?

At this time there are five to seven members attending our church with physical disabilities. Out of these individuals two to three are part of our intercessory group and the others are not active in the church.
--Jorge Delgado
Toronto, Ontario

The people in our congregation who have experienced these challenges are no less hungry to learn and no less eager to worship and serve.
--Pete Burrill
Chatham, Ontario

What biblical passages inspire you to work toward including people with disabilities?

To love our neighbors as ourselves.
--Mary and Bill Snoei
St. Catharines, Ontario

Two statements Jesus made challenge me to work toward full inclusion in the family of God: "Let the little children come unto me" and "When you have done this to the least of these, your sisters and brothers, you have done it unto me."
--Marcia Gibbons
Owasco, New York

Jesus seems to have spent a lot of time with people who were disabled. I can't give them sight or make them walk as he did, but I can help them feel less alienated, isolated, and limited by their disabilities.
--Stacey Midge
Schenectady, New York

What about your church is accessible? What isn't?

We have installed an elevator and updated restrooms so that all areas of the building are accessible, and have removed a portion of one pew for a wheelchair. We have a ramp near the elevator. Changes have been made to the choir loft to allow a member using a wheelchair to sit with the choir. These are "quick" fixes and we could do much more to ensure ease of access to classrooms, restrooms, comfort in participating in fellowship and study, and participation in worship leadership.
--Marcia Gibbons
Owasco, New York

Two out of three restrooms; no loop for hearing aids.
--Jim Smith
Muskegon, Michigan

Our former pastor's son was hurt extremely bad and put into a wheelchair. After that incident, my church has designated parking for elderly and disabled people, and we have cut out sections of pews for people in wheelchairs.
--Ryan Hoekstra
Sioux Center, Iowa

The church I am currently attending is not structurally designed to allow easy access to people with disabilities.
--Jorge Delgado
Toronto, Ontario

We have a ramp, wide doors, elevators, washroom, good sound, a screen, large print bulletins and hymn books, and sanctuary wheelchair space.
--Mary and Bill Snoei
St. Catharines, Ontario

We have personal listening devices and a signer for the hearing impaired.
--Phillip Sneller
Sheboygan, Wisconsin

Over the next three years, how might your church become more accessible?

For the church to become more accessible, monetary aid is required as structural renovations are costly. For our small congregation it is difficult to fund such an expense. We must also encourage members with disabilities to take part in church activities and participate in various ministries.
--Jorge Delgado
Toronto, Ontario

Beyond those physical things that could be done to the building are the spiritual renovations that need to take place and a fresh commitment to the covenant that we have made to care for one another in community.
--Pete Burrill
Chatham, Ontario

In three years, I hope that we have broadened our education programs to include a wider variety of comprehension levels.
--Stacey Midge
Schenectady, New York

Add a loop system for hearing aids. Redo the one bathroom (out of three) that isn't barrier free.
--Jim Smith
Muskegon, Michigan

Reaching out within the community to invite people at all levels of ability to participate fully in the life of the congregation, looking at possible continued updates in furnishings. We are looking at installing a railing now to facilitate access to the pulpit area for liturgists and Scripture readers.
--Marcia Gibbons
Owasco, New York



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