By Sister Karen J. Zielinski, OSF
I noticed two people with disabilities at my parish Mass recently. One used a walker, and another used a white cane that signified she was blind.
When we are at church, and look around, it does not appear there are many persons with disabilities present. While wheelchairs, scooters, walkers, white canes, companion dogs or sign language interpreters alert us that a person with a disability is present, many disabilities are not apparent.
Disabilities such as lupus, chronic pain, kidney failure, HIV/AIDS, psychiatric disability, learning disability, traumatic brain injury, (TBI), epilepsy, arthritis, cancer, heart disease, diabetes, narcolepsy, asthma, environmental illness, fibromyalgia, and chronic fatigue syndrome, are officially recognized by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). These “invisible” disabilities may not be revealed within a congregation unless it offers true affirmation and acceptance.
Millions of people in the United States have spiritual needs which are not being met because their churches, synagogues, meetinghouses, mosques, or temples aren’t accessible to persons with disabilities. People with disabilities often skip attending religious services because their places of worship are not accessible for them. It seems ironic that the very thing that can help us cope with disability—our faith—can be out of our reach.
Ginny Thornburgh, Director of the Interfaith Initiative at the American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD) has the Mission to support people with disabilities and their families as they seek spiritual and religious access, and to bring the powerful and prophetic voice of the faith community to the 21st Century disability agenda.
She says that “There are no barriers to God’s love; there should be no barriers in God’s House.”
Perhaps we can remove some barriers by doing something I believe Francis of Assisi would do to replace the pain of isolation and exclusion with the healing power of inclusion within our communities of faith. We might ask someone with a disability how we could help them attend church. Do they need a ride? Can we attend Mass and sit close to the restroom, or inquire if there are hearing devices?
To paraphrase anthropologist Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed members can change a congregation. Indeed it is the only thing that can.”