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By Scarlett Miles
(Published in Inclusion Daily Express March 9, 2002)

Do you have many disabled persons attending your church? If not, why not?

C.O. exclaimed nervously, "I will never go to church again!" Born without legs, he had suffered from severe depression and had sought help from a local church. "The service was so long," he said lowering his head. "I had to go so bad, but discovered that I couldn't get my wheelchair into the bathroom. In front of everyone, I wet myself."

H.O. is blind. She asked her pastor repeatedly to find her a ride to church. She suggested that the church offer to pay gas mileage for those who would be willing to transport others, but nothing ever happened. They did offer to bring communion once a month or so.

L.F. is blind. She wanted to participate in a ministry for persons with disabilities but the convent would not allow her to bring her seeing eye dog. "There wasn't much point in my coming anyway, "she cried. "I couldn't see to read their book and I felt stupid just sitting there."

D.W. is deaf. "I never heard of Jesus," he said when we asked him. "I don't go places where they do not sign. Why would I? I cannot hear what they are saying."

P.F. is developmentally disabled. For many years, her parents brought her to church. She had the learning ability of a small child but didn't fit into the children's classes. Instead, her parents had her sit alone in the back of the church while others participated in "their" religion.

Where did these exclusive attitudes come from? There are a lot of scriptures that list disability as a punishment inflicted by God to anyone who disobeys religious law; see Deut. 28: 27-29. It is written in 2 Kings 6:18 that God punished Elisha's enemy with blindness. Zach.12:4 says that horses will be blinded to punish mankind.

Disability was also listed many times as a blemish or defilement. In Lev. 21:17-23, it is written that God said, "no man with a defect; blind or lame, disfigured or deformed, with a crippled foot or hand, or who is hunchbacked or dwarfed, or who has any eye defect, festering or running sores, or damaged testicles, cannot offer sacrifice, come near to the curtain, or approach the alter because it would desecrate my sanctuary." The Pharisees, the religious teachers at that time, continued this theology throughout the life and time that Jesus walked on earth.

Jesus, on the other hand, interacted with many disabled people. He was undoubtedly, the first disability activist! He was always in trouble with the religious in his day for healing persons with disabilities. In John 9, one of Jesus' own disciples asked him, "who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind." Jesus replied, "neither," and then he healed the blind man. This angered the Pharisees. They investigated the healing and in conclusion, said to the man who was blind, "you were steeped in sin at birth. How dare you lecture us!"

And he wanted us included in the social life of the community. He said in Luke 14:12, "When you have dinner, don't invite your friends or relatives, or your rich neighbors. If you do, they will invite you to their house in return and you will be repaid. Instead invite the poor, the lame, the blind the crippled and you will be blessed and repaid at the resurrection."

So, first, the Old Testament God considered disabled persons defiled and defective sinners. Then Jesus came and welcomed persons with disabilities, healed them, and instructed his followers to do likewise. Hmmm! Either Jesus is not the old testament God, or the writers of the Old Testament made a big Boo Boo telling us what God really said about persons with disabilities!

Either way, what's wrong with this picture? It was taught in Old Testament theology that persons with disabilities should be excluded from religion. Do we still believe this today? If not, why are so many of us still unable to fully participate in so many churches? If not, why did most religious organizations fight so hard to be exempt from The Americans With Disabilities Act accessibility requirements?

Most Christian denominations teach that the church is the embodiment of God on earth, or at least, that the church is God's representative on earth.

So, if the church is inaccessible, what does this say to a disabled person about God? And I can't help but wonder; if participation in any religious requirement is inaccessible, or if participation in any church activity is inaccessible, is it from God or from man?

Most of you cannot go for more than a few hours without using a bathroom. Persons with disabilities have to go to the bathroom just like you do. Could you attend church if you couldn't go to the bathroom from the time you left your home until you return home many hours later?

When you attend church, don't you like to sing and read along? Blind people like to sing and read along too, but how can they if words are only offered in print that they cannot read? Wouldn't you feel stupid just sitting there unable to participate?

If you were blind and depended on your seeing eye dog to guide you, how willing would you be to travel alone without your guide dog? I'll bet you couldn't even get from one room to another if you were blindfolded and alone. How frightened would you be like this in a totally unfamiliar setting?

Most of you need to attend church. Blind persons and others who cannot drive need to attend church just like you. Would receiving communion in your home once in awhile be an acceptable substitute for church attendance? If not, why should that be good enough for others? I'll bet if your favorite entertainer asked for a ride, you would be happy to transport him.

Hopefully, most of you attend church for the message. It helps you discern right from wrong and helps you to live your faith. Deaf persons need that message as well. Wouldn't you feel stupid just sitting there unable to hear or understand?

Shouldn't the message be understandable? Most churches have classes and programs for each age group. What does your church offer to learning challenged adults? If the message was always in a language you could not understand, or contained nothing but unfamiliar words, how could you learn from it?

I find it impossible to believe that anything having anything to do with religion is of God if a deaf, blind, mute, learning challenged, paralyzed person in a wheelchair cannot do it!

There is a lot your church can do to become fully accessible to everyone. First, it's always a great idea to ask people what they need. NEVER ASSUME. This is especially true with blind and low vision persons. For instance, large print might help one person while several others are unable to read print of any size. Ask each person what they need. Then, call your local disability groups for assistance in getting alternate format if your office equipment is unable to produce it.

Sign language is taught now in most communities. What a valuable ministry that would be to your church! See if you can offer the class at your church and encourage members to learn. Even if there is currently no deaf person attending, if you publicize that signing is offered at every gathering, deaf people will attend.

I am sad to say that very few churches offer anything for learning challenged adults. Encourage your denomination to create programs for them. Advertising for an experienced teacher will also help you. There must be a special education teacher in your area who will volunteer a few hours a week to bring your message to these persons.

None of this will help anyone if the person cannot transport themselves to your church. Please prioritize getting rides for those who want to attend. Advertise in your bulletin, and raise money to reimburse gas mileage if needed.

Persons who cannot drive may really need to attend your other functions as well.

Finally, persons with disabilities have a lot to teach able-bodied persons about living their faith. Many of us have overcome lifelong obstacles that most of you will only face in the final few years of your life. God makes his presence known through his church. He makes his church's presence known through his people; all his people! An accessible church presents to persons with disabilities an accessible God.


Scarlett Miles is a legally blind disability activist from Southern Oregon. She can be reached through the following contact information:
Scarlett Miles
110 Loto St. Apt 3
Eagle Point OR 97524

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