Disability: Big Steps and Church Responsiveness

I’ve written a lot here about the hurtful invisibility and casual dehumanization that often happens to the disabled within church cultures; we often become elevated examples of otherness, alternatively lauded as inspirations or projects to “fix” when not being ignored because to do otherwise would require all of us to face our differences, fragility, mortality and how far we really need to go to make radical inclusion a reality.

I’m cautiously optimistic today about Anglican forward motion on this inclusion, however. Last week, at the 79th General Convention of the Episcopal Church, a resolution was presented and passed that will create a task force dedicated to accessibility and inclusion; my friend Charis was instrumental in the hard work, advocacy, and visibility necessary to make this happen, and I’m doing backflips of joy (metaphorically), I’m so proud of her. Today, as part of a conference at Lambeth Palace, the Archbishop of Canterbury introduced More Than Welcome, an initiative presented in partnership with UK-based advocacy group Livability, dedicated to creating resources and altering perceptions in order for churches to be more welcome and inclusive to those of us with disabilities. And this is such a needed and transformative step; with that said, it’s a step in a sequence, and so much more is needed for the promise of dignity and belonging t0 be offered to those with disabilities in all church settings.

When I first found myself in a wheelchair, people I’d known for decades started leaning over to talk to me, and shouting while they did so; it was bizarre, but so many of my friends who also use wheelchairs laughed and made note of the same thing. As soon as it’s pointed out, people stop this behavior, or actively try to correct it. Being able to have that conversation, and keep it going without shame as a continuum of dignity is created, is so necessary, and so often much more fragile than it needs to be.

Earlier this year, I found myself in a roundtable cultural discussion about accessibility in the arts. An executive director of a prominent arts organization lauded a symphony’s single-instance offering of a program for deaf and hard of hearing patrons, in which they could feel vibrations on special equipment as a symphony played a specially-designed piece.

I got stuck in this, and in its single-service nature, and how it was presented as such a win: I kept thinking, “Is this really accessibility?” It was certainly an invitation, and it required a whole lot of work, but it felt like a novelty, a different experience to provide SOMETHING that wasn’t quite the art form in a new and accessible state, and the joy and satisfaction at its creation felt awfully like checking a box. At no point will we rejoice conclusively: “WE SOLVED DISABILITY ACCESS! YAY!” We don’t work that way. The challenge doesn’t work that way. Everything is a step, but the journey doesn’t end. We stay on the process and keep evolving as the needs do.

And drawing this back to church: it’s my hope from this Anglican initiative, from the conversation within the Episcopal Church, that the value of being seen and heard and rising to the challenge is the most important part of this process; slapping down a ramp or installing an elevator or making sure audio description and open capturing are precise and useful are immensely helpful, but they’re so often treated as conclusive actions, when true access is conversational and adaptive.

As the saying goes: nothing about us without us. And there’s no such thing as checking a box that will end this process and end the challenge. See us, hear us, actively participate in and enjoy the dialogue with us. We want to be here and we want to be in communion with you, and there’s such joy and growth to be found in that, on all sides.

A friend described the single-instance actions of diversity as inviting someone to a party; true inclusiveness is inviting someone at that party to dance. I like that; It’s high time we all had a shot at showing off some sick moves, right?