By Daniel J. Vance
"Due to the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, in some respects progress has been made for people with disabilities in their churches," said LisaRose Hall, executive director of the Indianapolis-based Christian Council on Persons with Disabilities (CCPD). "A lot more churches now have a ramp or elevator, and pew cuts for wheelchairs."
But what remains, she said, is the greater challenge of individual churches becoming more "accessible" via their attitudes and communication methods.
"Often churchgoers feel uncomfortable interacting with a visitor with a disability because they don't know how to approach them," Hall said, referring to attitudes. "So they avoid them. That's primarily because people fear the unknown, of not being understood, of saying and doing the wrong thing to a person with a disability. So a person with a disability often will assume they're being ignored because of their disability."
Other disability-unfriendly attitudes: pastors or parishioners that say or imply a person's sin caused their disability.
As for disability-unfriendly communication methods, Hall cited many, including the printing of church bulletins or newsletters in type too small for people with poor vision, not making large-print Bibles available, asking elderly or disabled worshipers to stand or kneel a great deal or for long periods, not having Sunday school materials or classes for slow learners, repeatedly asking a congregation that includes quadriplegics and amputees to clap, stand and raise hands, and heavily emphasizing memorization drills for youngsters that have significant speech or cognitive impediments, such as those born with cerebral palsy or fetal alcohol syndrome.
"When something as simple as a bulletin isn't printed in large type, a person with poor vision may not know what's going on, feel included or feel their church participation isn't valued," she said. One communication barrier for a lip-reading deaf person can be the choir that sings out of view, such as from a balcony, which makes "hearing" the words impossible.
CCPD began in 1988 to create a national Christian voice for disability. Its members include churches, nonprofit organizations, and people and families affected by disability. Hall, who has multiple sclerosis, ran an aid organization in Belarus assisting Chernobyl survivors before joining CCPD in 2002.
"Our main conference is April 23-25 in Indianapolis," Hall said. "The focus this year is on the importance of people with disabilities giving back to their cities and faith communities, and participating in leadership."