By Jacqueline Giesbrecht

As described in my previous blog post on the Religious Participation Gap, people with disabilities have been and continue to be excluded from faith communities, both intentionally and unintentionally. The first chapter of my research essay begins by examining the exclusionary implications of the biblical concept of disability and mūm (“defect” or “blemish”) in the Hebrew Bible. In Jewish theology, the idea of being specially chosen by YHWH (the Hebrew God) has long been critical to group identity. This theology has an understanding of separation: separation from other people groups, and separation from the unholy and impure. In the Ancient Israelite community, a practice of exclusion was necessary for the group to maintain its purity, as well as to preserve the sanctity of its sacred spaces. People with mūm and other disabilities were one of the groups that were excluded and marginalized from Israelite sacred spaces so that the community could reach this goal. Additionally, people with mūm and other disabilities have been excluded from future imaginaries and hope-filled sacred spaces in both Jewish and Christian communities (ideas of utopia, like the Kingdom of God or Heaven). For more on theologies of disability and mūm in the Hebrew and Christian Bibles and to read my research essay in full, you can find my essay here.

In my research essay, I argue that conceptualizations of sacred space have been heavily influenced by this exclusionary nature of sacred space as demonstrated by the exclusion of people with mūm from the tabernacle in Exodus and the temple in Jerusalem. Further, I argue that this theology and practice of exclusion has continued in the ableist tendencies of Christian churches in North America. This blog post is from my second chapter of my research essay and describes the ableist tendencies of Christian communities in North America. Many of these tendencies, of course, are applicable outside of the Christian tradition as well as North America. This post is a continuation of the discussion of the Religious Participation Gap from my earlier blog post and identifies the various types of barriers keeping people with disabilities from being able to participate fully in a Christian community.


Architectural Barriers

Many barriers result in the exclusion of people with disabilities from participation in faith communities. Erik Carter, a professor of Rehabilitation Psychology and Special Education, divides these barriers into five main categories: architectural barriers, attitudinal barriers, communication barriers, programmatic barriers, and liturgical barriers.[1] Architectural barriers are the most apparent form of barrier impeding people with disabilities from participating in a church community. Is the church easy to navigate and have automatic doors or stalls in the bathroom for people in wheelchairs? If a person is unable to enter a church building, they will be unable to participate in the church community. Often, contemporary faith communities fail to make their buildings more accessible due to economic constraints, a lack of awareness of the needs of people with disabilities, and even the lack of awareness that their congregants may have disabilities. Many congregations are reactive instead of proactive; they may say that they will provide accommodations if the need arises. This puts the onus on people with disabilities to advocate for themselves and allows the congregation to congratulate themselves for being accessible without putting in any real effort.[2] The United Church of Christ National Committee on Persons with Disabilities points out that, instead of assuming that there is no existing need (“there is no one in our congregation with this disability, so we do not need to make this accommodation”) churches should be thinking more critically and proactively (“these people exist, so why are they not at our church?”).[3]

Attitudinal Barriers

Of course, architectural barriers are not the only type of barrier keeping people with disabilities from participating in a faith community. There are also attitudinal barriers, which include the attitude of reactivity described above. Attitudinal barriers are not limited to features of architecture. However, a church’s attitude towards disability can be easily read using the church building as text. As Carter says, “[a] building offers one of the first pronouncements of [a] congregation’s theology”;[4] buildings communicate a congregation’s commitments and values, as well as the importance of people with disabilities in the faith community. An example of this would be the temple and tabernacle; the levels of separation in these sacred spaces reflected the theology of separation and the devaluing of people with disabilities of the ancient Israelite community.

Additionally, many of the buildings of faith congregations across North America communicate the lack of importance of people with disabilities. In a study in 2000 funded by the Illinois-based Retirement Research Foundation, researchers found that only 6 out of the 100 churches in Chicago surveyed were found to be fully accessible according to the Illinois Accessibility Code. While more than three-quarters of the congregations reported that they had achieved or were planning for future accessibility, over half of the buildings provided no access for people with disabilities whatsoever. Many of these buildings were built in the 19th and 20th century, when the practice of elevating religious structures was widespread and seen by many ecclesiastical architects as a central faith practice for places of worship.[5] Many churches surveyed fit a common blueprint: the entrance to the building was above ground level, and the worship space was raised, often with sloping floors or floor levels being incrementally raised when approaching sacred areas such as the altar. The social hall was in the basement, and the entrance was often made to emphasize the transition between secular and sacred space, with stairs leading up to massive exterior doors. In favour of the ideals of separation and elevation, the needs of people with disabilities were disregarded.[6]

In his article, “Accessibility or Hospitality,” theologian Richard Steele describes people with disabilities as being estranged from society. Steele relates the estrangement of people with disabilities to the hospitality due to foreign visitors in Israel.[7] Whereas these foreigners were “strangers in a foreign land,” often people with disabilities are “strangers in their own land.”[8] In American society, where rationalism, health, beauty, and independence are valued, people with disabilities are “aliens in the land of normalcy.”[9] People with disabilities, as well as their families, are “alienated by virtue of their disenchantment with cultural myths” – they are alienated from the rest of society and, if they themselves once believed in these myths, they can even be alienated from their own past.[10] The sacred utopia of American society – which Steele calls the “hedonistic utopianism of Madison Avenue” [11] excludes people with disabilities, as they are not congruent with the American ideal of a perfect life.

For Steele, this estrangement is not just about architectural accessibility, but is attitudinal. As Steele says, “it is not the stairs, but the stares, which make the disabled and their families feel unwelcome in public places.”[12] Activist Kendrick Kemp describes the stark contrast between his church experience pre-stroke and post-stroke, saying that instead of being welcomed as he had been previously, “[he] became a spectacle. People stared as if I were from another planet – a contemporary leper.[13] Thus, just because a building is physically accessible does not mean that it is hospitable – the term Steele uses to describe attitudinal accessibility. As Steele says, “What good is it to get into public buildings if you still feel like an outsider while you’re there?”[14] Even inclusion can result in estrangement when people with disabilities are strategically displayed as tokens of enlightenment.[15] Steele then pushes not just for accessibility but also for an extension of genuine welcome and hospitality for people with disabilities.

According to David Hughes, breaking down attitudinal barriers begins with education and building relationships with people with disabilities, both of which leaders in faith communities can intentionally nurture.[16] However, while pastoral leadership is important, congregational involvement is critical. It is for the education of lay people that author Mark Pinsky wrote his book Amazing Gifts (2012), which tells sixty-four different stories about the inclusion of people with disabilities in faith communities. To the laypeople of churches, he writes:

This book is for you, and the message is: Making your congregation welcoming and accessible can be done because it has been done – somewhere, as you will see, by people just like you. I hope that after reading these stories, you can replicate what has been successful, avoid what has failed, and, most importantly, generate creative programs of your own.[17]

Pinsky uses the modality of storytelling because he feels it is effective; as he says, “people listen to sermons but remember stories. Stories have power – they linger and do not flee the way facts do, and they move us to action.”[18] These stories help the listener to overcome their discomfort and anxiety around disability and be inspired by the actions of others. Stories bring people into the experience of others, which can help avoid the “‘we-they’ trap” that people can fall into if they do not have a close relationship with a person with a disability.[19] Breaking down this subtle or blatant insider-outsider distinction is a necessary step for eliminating attitudinal barriers and moving towards the full inclusion of people with disabilities in faith communities.

Of course, these attitudinal barriers all assume that the person with a disability is a member of the congregation and not leaders in the church. Nancy Eiesland describes how the American Lutheran Church adopted a resolution in 1980 concerning ministry with people with disabilities. Moving past the framework of charity (ministering to), the ALC energetically encouraged systemic change in the church (ministering with). However, this change did not extend to leadership roles; in 1986, the ALC barred people with “significant” disabilities from church leadership due to a concern that they would be unable to perform regular parish duties. Conditional and limited inclusion is not full inclusion and signifies the continued presence of an attitudinal barrier. After all, it is more difficult to engage in “us-them” rhetoric when there is diversity in the leadership itself.[20]

Theological Barriers

Certain theologies of disability and of sacred and holy spaces can create attitudinal barriers as well. Eiesland identifies the most common of these theologies as being the association of disability with curse and sin, the emphasis on “virtuous suffering,” and the focus on “segregationist charity.”[21] Though these tend to be more obvious, other more subtle theologies can result in an inhospitable attitude towards people with disabilities. As a biblical scholar who is deaf, Rebecca Raphael was not initially bothered by metaphors that equated deafness with rebellion against God. However, when some students told her that others had been equating her differing theological views with her deafness, she was deeply troubled. As she says, “this experience perhaps contributes to my extreme reluctance to dismiss metaphorical language as harmless, or to pretend that literal language is metaphorical.”[22]

Kathy Black, a professor of Christian homiletics, adds that inhospitable attitudes – such as the objectification of people with disabilities[23] – can result from certain types of readings of Jesus’ healings and exorcisms during his ministry. According to Black, literal interpretations of these passages have an emphasis on people with disabilities as being a tool for elevating Jesus and the healing powers of God. In these cases, healing is equivalent to as cure – redemption from sin and a return to “wholeness.” Non-literal interpretations may have a focus on psychological approaches to healing. Alternatively, they may focus on textual analysis, asking questions about the placement of the story in the Gospel and how it contributed to the author’s overall theology. Both interpretations view the person who is healed as being an object to an end, rather than a subject or agent of their own story.[24]

In her book, A Healing Homiletic (1996), Black tells the story of a young man named Sig who was told by his church that if he had enough faith, his epilepsy would be healed. Sig stopped taking his medication and soon suffered a severe seizure and died.[25] While Black “[wants] to affirm God’s ability to bring healing to the lives of those who suffer,” she worries about the negative effect this type of preaching on the “healing texts” could have on the lives of people with disabilities.[26] Similarly, she is aware of how the treatment of these texts affects the attitude of laypeople towards people with disabilities and how it can lead to the exclusion of people with disabilities from church communities.[27]

The objectification of people with disabilities is widespread – even among religious leaders advocating for the inclusion of people with disabilities. Though this objectification may be subtle, these positive-seeming theologies often use people with disabilities as a one-dimensional supporting character in the narrative of the Christian church. This is displayed in Pope John Paul II’s objectification of people with disabilities in a papal message from 2004:

Disabled people are, instead, living icons of the crucified Son. They reveal the mysterious beauty of the One who emptied himself for our sake and made himself obedient unto death. . . It is said, justifiably so, that disabled people are humanity’s privileged witnesses. They can teach everyone about the love that saves us; they can become heralds of a new world, no longer dominated by force, violence and aggression, but by love, solidarity and acceptance, a new world transfigured by the light of Christ, the Son of God who became incarnate, who was crucified and rose for us.[28]

This theology focuses on the strengths of people with disabilities rather than their “weaknesses.” However, just as focusing on one’s weaknesses is oversimplified, so too is focusing on one’s strengths. It is not uncommon for people with disabilities to be praised for virtues: their courage, perseverance, wisdom, or joy. While this is a step forward from seeing them only for their disabilities, this focus creates a narrative in which people with disabilities are robbed of their pain, loneliness, or anger – which combine with their virtues to make them a full human living in a world of complexity, just like everybody else. Without the fullness of their experiences, they are simplified into being flat and static background characters written into the Christian narrative only to help move along the main plot.

This simplification is also seen through the objectification of people with disabilities in this passage; they are “icons,” “witnesses,” and “heralds” of a “new world transfigured by the light of Christ” – a world that the gospels refer to as the Kingdom of God. This passage extends Raphael’s assertion that the task of people with disabilities, as perceived by the writers of Psalms and Isaiah, are serving a mediating function by which the rest of God’s people can communicate with God.[29] In doing so, their experience is overlooked, their humanity is taken away, and they are left with the heavy burden of the expectations of their community. Though the words of Pope John Paul II may be well-meaning, they assume that people with disabilities are not actors in their own story or equal members of God’s community and creation. Instead, “they” are just props used by the “us” that is the centered norm: the TAB. This implies that they have no purpose of their own and that their function is to communicate God’s love and mercy and not necessarily experience it for themselves.

Other Types of Barriers

There are communication barriers in the area of sight, sound, language, and listening. The presentation of information and style of worship may be inaccessible to those with visual or hearing impairments – perhaps there are no braille or large print materials, no ASL interpreters, or assisted listening systems. The information may be intellectually or experientially inaccessible to congregants – though this may especially impact people with developmental disabilities, this can also affect people who have non-traditional learning styles, have less education, or who speak different languages or are from different cultures.[30]

Programmatic barriers have to do with the programs of churches that occur outside of the weekly worship service, such as Sunday School, youth group, or support groups for parents. Programmatic barriers keep people with disabilities from participating in these programs. While some people may just need an invitation, others may need additional resources to participate in these programs, such as extra adult or peer support, or adapted materials, equipment, or curricula. Families may choose not to attend a congregation with programmatic barriers in favour of those without these barriers.[31]

Liturgical barriers refer to when an individual is unable to participate in sacramental practices and rituals in the “usual” way. Churches may be unwilling to adapt their rituals to maintain tradition, consequently preventing people with disabilities from participating fully in the community.[32] For churches that practice adult baptism, this could exclude people with intellectual disabilities from the practice of baptism, ergo also excluding them from the Church body. Concerning the Eucharist, an example of this would be only serving bread with gluten, preventing those with gluten intolerances or allergies from being able to partake. Additionally, if the rest of the church is served at the front of the congregation, “accommodating” people with disabilities by serving them in their seat is “transforming Eucharist from a corporate experience to a solitary one.”[33]

All of the previous barriers are exclusionary practices that people with disabilities encounter when they enter a church building. However, many other barriers may keep a person with a disability from ever entering a church in the first place. Carter identifies a number of what he describes as “barriers within communities and the existing service system.”[34] This includes limited transportation – perhaps they do not know anyone who can give them a ride or their community’s paratransit is non-existent or provides limited services. Perhaps the individual has had a negative or traumatic experience in churches in the past, or is unfamiliar with faith communities in general and is unsure of their spiritual preferences. Additionally, service providers may feel ill-equipped to support individuals with their spiritual lives and so may not make their clients aware of their options. Congregations may fail to extend invitations to people with disabilities to let them know that they are welcome. Additionally, anxiety towards the unknown or fatigue of constantly having to advocate for themselves may keep them away.[35] These barriers are especially difficult for faith communities to be aware of; since they all happen outside of the faith community, they may never hear about them if they do not have people with disabilities in their congregation.


There are Christian theologians and Christian disability advocacy groups that have been working towards breaking down barriers for people with disabilities in Christian communities. To learn more about more inclusive theologies of disability and sacred space as seen through contemporary Christian-based disability advocacy groups, see my full research essay here.

Jacqueline Giesbrecht is an MA student in Religious Studies. She completed her Bachelor of Arts with an Honours in Biblical and Theological Studies and a minor in Psychology at Canadian Mennonite University in 2018. Jacqueline’s research interests include vernacular religion and material religion; folklore and group formation; and disability, religion, and spirituality. She is excited to be continuing at Queen’s in the Cultural Studies Ph.D. program this September.


References

[1] Erik Carter, Including People with Disabilities in Faith Communities (Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes Publishing, 2007), 9–16.

[2] David Hughes, “The Accessibility of Faith Communities and Their Places of Worship,” Journal of Religion in Disability and Rehabilitation 2, no. 3 (1995): 53, https://doi.org/10.1300/J445V02N03_05.

[3] Is Everyone Welcome? A Guide to Ministries with Persons with Disabilities (Cleveland, OH: United Church of Christ National Committee on Persons with Disabilities, 1993).

[4] Carter, Including People with Disabilities in Faith Communities, 9.

[5] One of these Ecclesiastical architects was Ralph Adams Cram (d. 1942), who writes that “architecturally, [a city church] must command its neighbours” by having walls rising to the “highest possible elevation” and that elevation has a “dignifying” effect on the alter and communion table. Ralph Adams Cram, Church Building: A Study of the Principles of Architecture in Their Relation to the Church (Boston, MA: Marshall Jones Company, 1914), 78, 99; Elizabeth Patterson and Neal Vogel, Accessible Faith: A Technical Guide of Accessibility in Houses of Worship (The Retirement Research Foundation, 2003), https://www.uua.org/sites/live
-new.uua.org/files/accessible-faith.pdf, 3-4.

[6] Patterson and Vogel, Accessible Faith, 4-5.

[7] Steele cites Lev. 17 and 35 as evidence of Israelite hospitality towards foreigners. The verse from this selection that provides the most clear evidence of Steele’s point is Lev. 25:35, which says, “If any of your fellow Israelites become poor and are unable to support themselves among you, help them as you would a foreigner and stranger, so they can continue to live among you” (NIV). Richard Steele, “Accessibility or Hospitality?” Journal of Religion in Disability & Rehabilitation 1, no. 1 (January 12, 1994): 25, https://doi.org/10.1300/J445V01N01_02.

[8] The phrase “strangers in a foreign land” is from the phrase “foreigner in a foreign land” in Exod. 2:22. It is the meaning of Gershom, the name given to the child Moses had with Zipporah when he was living in Midian. Steele, 17.

[9] Steele, 18–20.

[10] Steele, 20.

[11] Steele, 20.

[12] Steele, 23.

[13] Kendrick Kemp, “Beyond Ramps and Special Seating: Practicing A Black Liberation Theology of Disability,” Religious Socialism, published July 21, 2016, https://www.religious
socialism.org/beyondrampsand_special_seating_practicing_a_black_liberation_theology_of_disability.

[14] Steele, “Accessibility or Hospitality,” 21.

[15] Steele, 21.

[16] Hughes, “The Accessibility of Faith Communities and Their Places of Worship,” 55.

[17] Mark Pinsky, Amazing Gifts: Stories of Faith, Disability, and Inclusion (Herndon, VI: Alban, 2012), xxvi.

[18] Pinsky, 299.

[19] Pinsky, 299, 305.

[20] Eiesland, The Disabled God, 75–76.

[21] According to Eiesland, the account of Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” (2 Cor. 12:7-10) has supported the theology of virtuous suffering and has led to passivity towards justice for people with disabilities. “Segregationist charity” describes the tendency to focus efforts of charity and justice on healing and neglecting the social, political, and spiritual needs of people with disabilities. Eiesland, 72, 74, 93.

[22] Raphael, Biblical Corpora, 27.

[23] Practices of exorcism and healing have always been a prominent part of Pentecostal and Charismatic practice. The association of mental health conditions with demon possession has added to the societal prejudice against these conditions in contemporary society. In the event that these ceremonies do not elicit the desired results, the person with the illness may be even further stigmatized by the community. Though these theologies may not result in the outright exclusion of people with disabilities from a faith community, an emphasis on them can result in an attitudinal barrier keeping the individual from fully able to participate in the community. Moss, “Mark and Matthew,” 286; David Watson, “Luke–Acts,” in The Bible and Disability: A Commentary, ed. Sarah Melcher, Mikeal Parsons, and Amos Yong (Waco, Texas: Baylor University Press, 2017), 307.

[24] Of course, Jesus is the main character in the gospels and so people with disabilities will never be the main actors in the stories in the gospels. The danger comes when people with disabilities are seen permanently as having supporting roles in non-literary settings. Black, A Healing Homiletic, 13.

[25] Black, 11.

[26] Black, 11–12.

[27] Black, 1.

[28] John Paul II, “Message to the Participants International Symposium on The Dignity and Rights of the Mentally Disabled Person,” The Vatican, published January 2004, http://www.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/speeches/2004/january/documents/hf_jp-ii_spe_20040108_handicap-mentale.html.

[29] Raphael, Biblical Corpora, 130.

[30] Carter, Including People with Disabilities in Faith Communities, 13.

[31] Carter, 13.

[32] Carter, 13.

[33] Nancy Eiesland, “Encountering the Disabled God; the Church Has All Too Often Been Complicit in Stigmatizing and Oppressing Persons with Disabilities. Jesus Invites Us to a New Way of Healing, Justice, and Liberation,” The Other Side, 2002, Gale Academic OneFile.

[34] Carter, Including People with Disabilities in Faith Communities, 14.

[35] Carter, 14–16.