Out of step

Why did they need to climb to be heard?

On March 13, 1990, an eight-year-old girl, diagnosed with cerebral palsy, joined over 60 adults and families impacted by physical disabilities to crawl up the steps of the Capitol building in Washington D.C. without their mobility devices to physically demonstrate the inaccessible architecture and culture of America. 

Living in an ableist culture

My two youngest, Rachel and Janneke, can’t crawl or climb stairs, and our experiences as a family can attest to the persistent challenges of living with disability in Ontario. Both Rachel and Janneke use wheelchairs for mobility on account of their disability. It has been hard to go out for holidays and almost impossible to visit family and friends. We used to be able to carry our girls and their equipment into homes, but the girls are growing heavier – and we are growing older. Instead of being invited, we are doing the inviting into our home. Our mobility mechanic now gets a Christmas card from us, as he and his team have become friends with their frequent visits to repair our van and porch lifts.

The Capitol Crawl, the physical demonstration of climbing the stairs of the Capitol building, was incredibly impactful for all who were present and who watched the footage on TV. Later that year, President George H.W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act, creating another step forward for disability advocates. The eight-year-old girl, Jennifer Keelan-Chaffins, grew up and wrote a children’s book about her experience called All the Way to the Top. She continues to advocate for and teach about ableism, accessibility and disability. 

Those who crawled up the stairs wanted to draw attention to the incredible inequities for persons with disabilities. And that’s where I see the problem: the stairs. Why did they need to climb to be heard? 

Sit and listen

Christ’s ministry was about meeting people where they were, in their space. There were times when he used the height and area of the hillside to be heard, but Christ’s posture in teaching seems remarkably different from what Western Christianity and culture practice today. It is seen as authoritative and calls for respect when one stands to speak – and often climbing stairs to find a podium. Yet when Christ taught in the synagogue, he sat down (e.g.: Luke 4:20). 

I wonder what a posture of hospitality looks like when we teach. I wonder what hospitable homes and spaces look like when we open our doors. I wonder what hospitable language sounds like. I wonder what a hospitable posture looks like when someone needs us to listen.

Maybe it’s a warm coffee for the cold hands of the man standing on the street corner, asking for spare change. 

Maybe it’s a question about diet restrictions or food preferences when making a meal for someone.

Maybe it’s being mindful of the abilities and limitations of others in choosing where to gather and what to do when planning a gathering.

Maybe it’s about creating an eye level connection with someone who uses a wheelchair.

Maybe it’s about honouring the preferred language with reference to disability and with gender identity.

Hold that posture

Hospitality is not just about hotels and the towels folded into swans on the guest bed. Hospitality is in the words you choose when you speak with someone, in how you teach someone, or how you offer to help someone. It’s creating a space that allows for someone to move freely and safely, both physically and emotionally.

We shouldn’t have to take the stairs.


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One Comment

  1. Sara,

    Thank you for this awesome article. I totally agree. Say Hello to Rachel and Janneke for me.

    Jennifer Keelan-Chaffins

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