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Your ramp is not enough

Accessibility theology and how to spot ‘ableism’ at church.

“Where’s the lectern in your church?”

It seems like a simple question, but Dr. David Pereyra has a profound point to make. Are there stairs on the way to the lectern? How high is it? Who typically reads the Bible at your church? Look around: how many people with disabilities are there?

And that’s just the beginning.

“Access,” Michael Walker says, “is about way more than ramps. It’s also intellectual, social, emotional and sometimes spiritual. Accessibility is a (w)holistic endeavour; it’s not simply about the people who use walkers and wheelchairs accessing the church sanctuary. It’s about how decisions are made, how people view the space, and how open to the rest of the community your faith community is.”

Did you know there’s an app that measures the accessibility of businesses? Your smartphone can help you rate, for example, a local Starbucks for compliance with Canadian accessibility codes (e.g., lighting, stairs vs. ramps, width of doorways). The same metrics could be used for churches, Pereyra and Walker explain to me in our hour-long zoom conversation. But that, too, is just the beginning.

In 2016, the Inclusive Design Research Centre from OCAD University received federal funding for a team of two researchers and eight research assistants to examine the accessibility of faith communities through a program called Enabling Change. Though businesses in Canada have to meet accessibility standards, places of worship receive religious exemptions. So Pereyra and Walker worked with a team of six other experts with lived experience of disability to create a booklet eventually called the Our Doors are Open Guide for Accessible Congregations. Their goal was to establish a benchmark for faith communities – “not just churches but synagogues, mosques, temples – to think through welcome and inclusion of believers with disabilities.”

“I have spastic cerebral palsy,” Walker says, “and that has conditioned not only my work on the project but my doctoral work. I study how Christian ritual helps believers with disabilities in churches to create and maintain just and loving communities.”

The Guide has been well received by Christian and Jewish communities; “we’re still working on Muslim and Sikh and Bahai,” Walker adds. Before the pandemic, their group led 150 workshops using the Guide as teaching material with participants from a variety of faith communities. More recently, the project received a $24,000 grant (in CAD) from the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, which has shifted their multi-faith efforts in a Christian-centric direction for 2022. The workshops are now available as webinars to anyone across Canada.

Changing the ‘able’ worldview

“Don’t build a ramp without widening your doorway.”

That line, posted on Our Doors are Open’s Facebook page, works like Pereyra’s lectern question – to prompt the realization that not all physical barriers for people with disabilities are as obvious as stairs. In a world built for able bodies, the width of a doorway doesn’t matter.

But challenging that assumption isn’t enough. Actually, don’t start with practical issues at all, the Guide advises. Go deeper into what you believe in order to understand that accessibility is a theological issue, not a practical one.

“Accessibility gets at the heart of the kingdom of God,” Walker says. “The life of God is a matter of inclusion. You accept the perspective of the person in front of you. You listen to them actively. When you see that they’re suffering or in need, then you offer them help – based on their answer, not on what you think they need. That’s a struggle many congregations have – they think they know what we need, but they don’t ask us.”

All of the work that Our Doors are Open does, Pereyra explains, offers a new way of understanding disability. It’s not the charitable model, in which people with able bodies help people with disabilities, or the medical model, in which the lives of people with disabilities are perceived as less full and less valuable – to the point where bills like Medical Assistance in Dying (MAiD) get legislated. Both of those are ‘ableism’ – defined by Walker as “oppression and discrimination against people with disabilities, making the able body normative.”

And what does ableism look like in our churches? When “all the people on the stage are young and able and beautiful. That’s the normative model, but it doesn’t really exist. Nobody fits that body type exactly.”

“Access is not just about ramps,” he adds. “It’s a failure of perception. It’s about the inclusion of people who have migraines and need low lighting in order to function; about including the people with schizophrenia who are going to burst out with not-logical conversations; it’s going to include people who stim and people who display hyper-focus in their interest. Christian churches and other faith communities [need] imagination to think outside the box, outside the criteria of able bodies that they’re used to dealing with, in order to welcome and include people that embody differences.”

“The biggest assumption that people make when they can’t see a disability is that everyone conceives of the world around us the same way, and that’s absolutely not true. The most important thing we can do is move worship into a multi-sensory format, so that people can participate in the way they feel led.”

COVID perks

A few months ago, Sara Pot reviewed Crip Camp for CC, a documentary about the “disability revolution” in the U.S. in the 70s. I asked Pereyra and Walker where Canadian society is now – where has the revolution made progress and where have things slowed down?

They both identified the MAiD bill as a clear example of how the “medical model” devalues the lives of people with disabilities. It’s part of the ongoing fight against ableism.

But disability activism is also making gains, especially during the pandemic. “People with disabilities survived lockdown better,” Walker says, “because we already know what it’s like to experience life with those limitations that were put in place for everyone else.”

The shift to virtual has also helped – “now it’s easier for us to share our opinions and our embodied experiences” online, and the more of those perspectives that can be shared, the faster the disability revolution will go. Walker encourages churches to keep a hybrid model for worship, even when in-person attendance fully returns.
“Sometimes you see a church with a big sign outside that says, ‘Welcome gay people.’ I never saw a sign like that for people with disabilities,” Pereyra says.

But even that is changing, Walker adds. “Queer acceptance is one stepping stone, and the acceptance of disabled folks is happening at a quicker pace because of that.”

Pereyra agrees. “When you have a kid who is gay, you start to be in tune with that. And then you invite the whole community to be in tune with that.”

The material created by Our Doors are Open gives the same vital gift of perspective to faith communities: the chance to be in tune with bodies of all abilities in order to create a worship space that truly welcomes everyone.


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One Comment

  1. As I read the article Your Ramp is Not Enough, I am both heartened and realize how much more needs to be done. Most of my disability challenges occur in social settings due to the complexity of social interactions. A simple conversation puts multiple demands on my cognition; interpreting tone and body language, processing what is being said, formulating responses, finding the words to communicate, knowing when to interject etc. With more than two or three people in the conversation I quickly become overwhelmed.
    Since I generally present as ‘normal’ when I am in public, I have experienced resistance when I have asked for accommodations. I come across people who simply can’t understand how their behaviour is having a negative effect on me. My needs being outside of the range of most people’s experience results at times in a total lack of empathy or compassion. At times an encounter has escalated into me being accused of being hurtful. Being neurologically atypical, the changes in my cognitive functioning makes is difficult to communicate the relevant information associated with my disability. Encounters like this are rather isolating as bystanders do not understand how they can be of assistance.
    One area of my disability is labelled emotional lability. Emotional lability is defined as expressing emotions more strongly than is considered socially acceptable. I have been accused of inappropriate behaviour despite having explained my emotional lability. This is one example in which I experience a compounding negative effect on my ability to function socially. Some of my social encounters can set me back several days or even a week. I find motivation to carry on from people who ask questions and show that they care.

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