Making wheelchairs sexy

After I broke my leg when I was seven, I remember how painful it was to hobble up and down the steps at church. Before my leg healed, I remember asking my peers to hold one of my crutches so I could get down to a class. It felt quite dramatic, and I can’t imagine the lengths people have to go through if they are in a wheelchair. This is the issue that the Associated Press tackles in a recent story on how disabled worshipers struggle to find their place in the pews. The story is a good idea; the execution of it? Not so much.

The disabled faithful say such experiences remain common in houses of worship, stoked by ignorance of their needs and doctrines that paint disability as proof of sin.

Huh? That’s quite a sweeping generalization for all houses of worship. Surely cost has something to do with it. The reporter mentions this just briefly as she sets up her story.

Years after federal law required accommodations for the disabled, separation of church and state means houses of worship remain largely beyond the law’s reach. State laws and denominational measures meant to take up the slack are tricky to enforce and face resistance from churches who call them both costly and impractical.

The issue is gaining new attention as the disabled community expands, fed by aging baby boomers and a growing number of people with intellectual disabilities who are demanding a more prominent place in the pews.

This makes it sound like without a law enforcing it, churches are doing nothing to accommodate people who are disabled. In my experience, churches go out of their way to welcome the disabled. Just recently I attended a church where women took turns doing sign language.

And what does it mean that people are demanding a more prominent place in the pews?

Later in the article, the reporter returns to those doctrinal issues she mentioned above.

For some, there are still spiritual barriers more ingrained than the physical ones.

They include a history of labeling disability as a deviation to be corrected, typically through things like faith healing or even exorcism.

Who believes this and how prominent is this theology? Why not speak to someone who would promote this belief? Also, don’t medical professionals see disabilities as a deviation to be corrected?

Modern prosperity gospel has only deepened the divide, said Kathy McReynolds, director of public policy at the Christian Institute on Disability in southern California. That doctrine says good things come to true Christians.

Conversely, “Because of your own personal sin, you have this disability and if you had faith, you would be healed,” McReynolds said.

Again, if the reporter wants to go that route, why couldn’t she find someone from the prosperity gospel side of things to get their take on people with disabilities?

Covering the disabled and the struggles they go to in order to attend church is worthy of coverage. It is probably an expensive struggle for older churches to update while remaining historic (I think of mainline Protestant churches that might not be able to afford it). An angle the reporter could have explored is how much adding disability features cost a megachurch to include in its plans. This article from Your Church magazine (which is owned by my company) suggests that ADA laws apply to churches with 15 or more employees and one employee is disabled, and churches that rent to outside groups. I’m guessing this applies to newer churches (possibly megachurches). Unfortunately, the reporter felt she needed to add some spicy theology to the mix.

This is how one of our readers put it:

The topic about churches not doing a better job of making their facilities handicapped accessible can stand alone. However, the swipe at the “theological bias” seems rather out of place. Perhaps a lack of wheelchair ramps in churches wasn’t sexy enough for a whole story.

Photos via Wikimedia commons.

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  • Jerry

    I don’t understand the reader comment at the end of the posting. The issue of some thinking that other deserve misfortune either personally as in this case or on a national basis as in Haiti is an issue that the media needs to explore including asking hard questions about the theological basis for such statements. Theodicy is a hard area for many people and that specifically includes reporters.

  • Chris Bolinger

    Walker’s article is a stinker. Sarah hits the nail on the head with her critiques.

  • Chip

    What kept the reporter from Googling the ADA and reading the statute to see what it says about accommodation by religious entities instead of airily citing separation of church and state (N.B. churches are not the only entities exempt from compliance with the ADA)

  • Bern

    I respectfully disagree: while the article could have been better what speaks more to the issue of exclusion due to lack of faith then the first-person testimony the story closes with: I cut and paste it here:

    Even after decades of blindness, Augusta churchgoer Willie Lee Jones said he still fields comments suggesting his sight could come back if he believed harder.

    “People of faith will come to me and say, ‘God wants to heal you,’” said Jones, who replies that he’s complete even without his sight.

    McReynolds points to biblical book of Luke, with its references to the blind and lame.

    “What Christ is saying there is they’re not an afterthought, they are central to my mission,” she said ” … If they were crucial to Christ in his mission, why aren’t they in the church?”

  • Mark Anderson

    In New York State the Uniform Fire Prevention and Building Code has stricter requirements than the federal ADA requirements. Churches are NOT exempt from the accessibility requirements in new construction.
    Unfortunately, most of the church buildings you will ever see were built prior to these requirements and there are no specific retroactive requirements.
    But awareness is increasing. Our church, built in 1894, has had a handicap ramp since the 80s. Our social hall, built in 1964, has had a lift since the 90s. This is a small congregation (ASA about 40) where such additions seem almost impossible to accomplish but we have understood our responsibilities to our disabled brothers and sisters for a long time. And we are certainly not unique – I see it in many churches.

  • Dionne Walker

    Wow. While I’m not necessarily a fan of my article being called “a stinker” nor of myself being refered to personally – I frankly always critique an article, and leave the reporter out of it – I’m glad my article is at least starting some conversation. :)

    - Dionne Walker

  • Sarah Pulliam Bailey

    Hi Dionne, thanks for weighing in. We love to hear feedback from reporters.