I have spent today talking with and listening to people with and without disability who advocate for inclusion for people with disability (PWD) in their/the church context. These are people from around the US, and we will soon be joined I am told by persons from Canada. These are people who have physical disabilities and people who work with persons with intellectual disabilities and parents of children with disabilities.
We have gathered to for the Ecumenical Disability Advocacy Network (EDAN) for North America. EDAN is a program of the World Council of Churches. We have been joined by Samuel Kaube and his wife for this historic meeting in Denver. Mr. Kaube is the Executive Director of the EDAN program for the WCC. Mr. has graced us with his knowledge of the work being done by PWD and their allies around the world to gain understanding and inclusion in the churches around the world–the very Body of Christ. He has shared some with us about the work that other EDAN groups have done in other areas of the world; he has shown us the books about disability theology that have been written in other areas of the world and told us of how parts of India and Asia are starting to include the area of disability awareness in theological institutions.
I love this, it is part of what I feel called to do in my life and in my ministry. But it also raises a good number of questions for me. One of the new ones of which is, why is North America so behind the rest of the world when it comes to organizing for access and inclusion within the churches? Given the fact that the Americans with Disabilities Act is now over two decades old one might think that the issue of accessibility and inclusion in the American churches is an issue long since solved. WRONG. Churches and institutions owned by them are exempt from the ADA, and have long failed to meet their moral and ethical obligations to PWD. I have said it before–the churches are among the most inaccessible places in America due to both physical and attitudinal barriers (discrimination). Yes, I said there is discrimination against PWD in the American churches. If you are shocked I am glad, and I hope you will start to raise the question of why in your own church setting. PWD in the churches need allies. If you are not shocked I am probably preaching to the choir–when will we get loud?
Another question, as one of the participants here put it “where are our allies” and “why is this not seen as civil right’s issue”?
Yet another is why have we not begun to formulate a disability theology, or even theologies, pertinent to the North American context? Is there something about the religious history of America or the decisive role religion has played in American culture over the last twenty years that is preventing us from doing so? And why, Why, WHY, is it that nearly thirty years after PWD were guaranteed access to education that PWD are still not included in the greater histories of the American people, and that disability perspectives are not taught at any level in our educational system, and that our theological educational systems not only fail to include disability as a theological lens to be explored in diversity but do not even encourage their faculty to be aware of how disability has been studied and/or addressed by every facet of theological education?
There are several people at this meeting who have been doing this work for much longer than myself. At times I feel dwarfed by their work. I have had moments when I wonder if I am too emotional, if I have been hurt too deeply by the system that disregards PWD to effect change in any meaningful way and yet, I find myself drawn to this work and I have been in invited to participate. I am looking forward to where the conversation goes and, meanwhile, I hear the poets and theologians from whose work I have learned urging me to write on…and yet I am still listening for the inspiration of the words that are to come.