The Rapidian

Ethics and Religion Talk: How Should We be Inclusive of Persons with Disabilities?

How do religious institutions show themselves to be open to folks with disabilities both visible and not visible?

What is Ethics and Religion Talk?

“Ethics and Religion Talk,” answers questions of ethics or religion from a multi-faith perspective. Each post contains three or four responses to a reader question from a panel of nine diverse clergy from different religious perspectives, all based in the Grand Rapids area. It is the only column of its kind. No other news site, religious or otherwise, publishes a similar column.

The first five years of columns, published in the Grand Rapids Press and MLive, are archived at http://topics.mlive.com/tag/ethics-and-religion-talk/. More recent columns can be found on TheRapidian.org by searching for the tag “ethics and religion talk.”

We’d love to hear about the ordinary ethical questions that come up on the course of your day as well as any questions of religion that you’ve wondered about. Tell us how you resolved an ethical dilemma and see how members of the Ethics and Religion Talk panel would have handled the same situation. Please send your questions to [email protected].

/The Rapidian

Linda B. asks, “How do religious institutions show themselves to be open to folks with disabilities both visible and not visible?”

Rev. Ray Lanning, a retired minister of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, responds:

“Presbyterian and Reformed churches are learning ways to accommodate worshippers with ‘visible’ disabilities. As for ‘invisible’ disabilities, we have a lot more to learn. The training of most ministers involves only a dash of psychology at most, so our leaders are ‘blind leaders of the blind’ in matters of personality disorders, autism, learning disabilities, etc. I suspect that some medical professionals are just as blind to the religious needs and spiritual problems of the people they treat. It would help all concerned to lay aside professional blinders and begin to communicate and cooperate. It would also be good if those with such disabilities would be brave enough to tell others about the challenges they face. Knowledge and understanding, linked with love and compassion, will go far to making all our churches into places of sanctuary and safety for ‘all sorts and conditions of men.’ ”

Fred Stella, the Pracharak (Outreach Minister) for the West Michigan Hindu Temple, responds:

“I think that most of the visible ways are self evident. Of course, in building new houses of worship these days it is virtually impossible not to cater to those with physical challenges. And many older buildings have been retrofitted. Besides being easily accessed by most handicapped people we have installed a wheelchair in the vestibule for the use of anyone who may need it.

“As to the ‘invisible,’ I think much of that has to do with outreach. Are members going out of their way to invite people who might be challenged in one way or another? Also, congregations could look at how they treat those with mental disabilities.”

Father Kevin Niehoff, O.P., a Dominican priest who serves as Adjutant Judicial Vicar, Diocese of Grand Rapids, responds:

“Recently I was on vacation in the United Arab Emirates. The friend I was visiting lives near the facility that assists individuals you describe. I really like the fact these people are not called ‘disabled​’ … but ‘People of Determination!’

“Regardless of whether one is a person of determination or not, all human beings are created in the image and likeness of God. As such, they are deserving of respect. When religious institutions openly treat everyone with respect, it matters not if they are people of determination visibly or not visibly, they demonstrate that they are loving Christian communities of faith.”

The Reverend Colleen Squires, minister at All Souls Community Church of West Michigan, a Unitarian Universalist Congregation, responds:

“Religious institutions need to constantly work at removing barriers that would prevent any person from fully participating in religious community. Starting with the language we use, it should be both educational for those who are new to the conversation and inclusive for those navigating disabilities. We are located in a building that is fully accessible and offers a hearing loop. We ask upfront on our website for people to not use perfumes when coming to service. We offer pipe cleaners as fidget toys to help folks who may have sensory issues. We have set up an intercom so if people need to leave the sanctuary they can still participate by listening to the service away from the loud music if that has become too much for them. And we remain open and flexible to continuing to learn so we can improve and implement new ways of creating a welcoming environment for all people.”

My response:

Physical disabilities are relatively easy to accommodate in the sense that all it takes, at the most, is money - buying large print or Braille books, printing special announcements, modifying the physical plant, hiring a sign language interpreter. It is helpful to note these accommodations on the institution’s website and in other publications.

Non-physical disabilities, or physical disabilities that manifest in ways that might be characterized as disruptive to the decorum of a service or to a community, are more difficult to address. When children make some noise, most people understand. When adults with special needs make noise, fewer people tolerate the interruption. Breast feeding is not a disability, so why do so many congregations invite such mothers to sit in a special room at the back of the sanctuary? And how do we address adults with a mental illness who occasionally behave in disruptive ways that make others in the congregation uncomfortable or even unsafe? These situations require continuous education, teaching all members of the congregation texts that speak about our responsibility to love one’s neighbor,  to support each other, and that we are all created in the image of God. 

In an era of church, synagogue, temple, and mosque shootings, people want to feel safe. If a person poses a proven danger, a congregation is justified in taking steps to protect itself. As a last resort, it is possible that openness and inclusion has limits. But a congregation should make every effort to accommodate each person who wants to be a part of its religious community.

 

This column answers questions of Ethics and Religion by submitting them to a multi-faith panel of spiritual leaders in the Grand Rapids area. We’d love to hear about the ordinary ethical questions that come up on the course of your day as well as any questions of religion that you’ve wondered about. Tell us how you resolved an ethical dilemma and see how members of the Ethics and Religion Talk panel would have handled the same situation. Please send your questions to [email protected]l.com.

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