Disability and the Church


Church on a hill

“Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. …Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another.  No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.”  I John 4:7, 11-12

Let me be clear that when I say “the church” I do not mean a particular denomination. I ought to say “organized religion” but I want the picture of a church—a church without ramps since religious denominations are not required to meet the standards of the Americans with Disabilities Act. This is because Jesus said: And ye shall send away the cripples lest they defile your baskets…

No one knows what Jesus meant by “baskets” as hermeneutic interpretation also suggests he may have said biscuits but in either case the picture isn’t pretty. How Jesus must have loathed it when the cripples licked his biscuits and then put them back! (That’s what cripples do you know—they lick things intemperately.)     

Churches enjoy their exemption from the ADA because religious leaders argued successfully before Congress that houses of worship should be considered as “private clubs” which is why you frequently see parishioners wearing “Members Only” jackets. (Yes, the Lutheran jacket is in tasteful earth tones.)

For Jesus said: We shall have no grimacers or limpers before the Lord…

He also said: Ye shall live with perfect people and lock out the droolers and moaners and those who walk with sticks…

There are indeed lots of progressive movements that seek to address the inaccessibility of places of worship. The National Catholic Partnership on Disability describes its mission this way:

Rooted in Gospel values that affirm the dignity of every person, the National Catholic Partnership on Disability (NCPD) works collaboratively to ensure meaningful participation of people with disabilities in all aspects of the life of the Church and society.

The Dallas Theological Seminary offers an excellent course entitled “Theology of Suffering, Disability & the Church” -–a course that includes people with disabilities as lecturers.

Professor Jeff McNair has a terrific blog Disabled Christianity.

I am a fan of the Episcopal Disability Network.  

We like the Calvin College video interview with Christopher Smit who, among many other things is a scholar with an interest in disability and film. 

We like the Disability Ministries page of the Evangelical Lutheran Church

We are fond of Julie Clawson’s blog One Hand Clapping.

We are enormously fond of Wheelie cATHOLIC’s blog.

There are many other progressive individuals and groups who are working to ensure that congregations offer full inclusion for people with disabilities—work that reflects the understanding that people with disabilities have gifts which they they can share.

But twenty years after the passage of the ADA this work is still insufficient. In 2011 churches of all kinds still lag far behind the rest of the nation when it comes to disability access and what might be called “inclusion consciousness”.

The irony is of course nearly unsupportable. 

For Jesus said: Build me a private club and turn away the deformed for they ruin all contemplation…

Private clubs indeed.

Leviticus 21:16-23 "The LORD said to Moses, "Say to Aaron: ‘For the generations to come none of your descendants who has a defect may come near to offer the food of his God. No man who has any defect may come near: no man who is blind or lame, disfigured or deformed; no man with a crippled foot or hand, or who is hunchbacked or dwarfed, or who has any eye defect, or who has festering or running sores or damaged testicles. No descendant of Aaron the priest who has any defect is to come near to present the offerings made to the LORD by fire. He has a defect; he must not come near to offer the food of his God. He may eat the most holy food of his God, as well as the holy food; yet because of his defect, he must not go near the curtain or approach the altar, and so desecrate my sanctuary. I am the LORD, who makes them holy."

Woe unto those who have defects!

The “private club” status of churches is an outgrowth or extension of the baleful ideas one finds in the Old Testament. Like my friend Nancy Mairs I refuse to believe that my God is a “Handicapper General”.   

Still, physical perfection remains a dominant trope in organized religion. The ableism of the enterprise has much to do with the transitive images of healing that surround Jesus. Many congregations get Jesus’ relationship to disability and to people with disabilities all wrong. (We like Sharon Post’s article “The Ministry of Jesus to People with Disabilities”.

Sharon Post points out that while Jesus healed people with disabilities he really much more interested in their souls. Amen.

Me? I’m just the grandson of a Finnish Lutheran minister. Some years ago I became an Episcopalian though I’m quite a back slider—I often don’t go to church and let’s be clear that I don’t feel good about it. But I can still hear the bells from my gray forest.

But to badly paraphrase Groucho, I wouldn’t join any private club that would offer me membership. The jacket would itch. Boy! Would it itch!

We like this prayer of inclusion from The National Catholic Partnership on Disability

Loving God,

You make each living person in your image
…Your gift of love and commitment to the human race
…A seed to build a community of interdependence and respect for all life

As we celebrate the U.S. bishops’ proclamation of welcome and inclusion,
open our hearts to their words
Commit us to their proclamation that “There can be no separate Church for people with disabilities. We are one flock.”

Guide our hands to build access and welcome
Guide our minds to understand the power and wisdom of human vulnerability
Guide our actions to create parish communities open to the gifts of each individual
Give us courage to stand up to the forces willing to destroy life because they fear disability or
make judgments about its “quality.”
Give us understanding that your body is incomplete if people are left behind
Give us an appreciation of the role we must play in spreading your good news to all we meet

We praise you Lord for all of your good gifts
We thank you fo
r those pioneers who have wo
rked tirelessly
to carry out the bishops’ prophetic vision of 1978

We give thanks for loving parents who welcome and nurture their children
We appreciate all those living with disabilities who contribute their time and talents even in the
face of obstacles or rejection

Guide us always Lord in your way




We hope that the presence of inhospitable churches will end in these times.




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Author: skuusisto

Poet, Essayist, Blogger, Journalist, Memoirist, Disability Rights Advocate, Public Speaker, Professor, Syracuse University

0 thoughts on “Disability and the Church”

  1. What a great blog post. True and sad, but you made me laugh a lot.
    I don’t attend church but I have on occasion visited a couple of local Catholic churches. I have to say that both had excellent accessibility for me (a wheelchair user) and there was plenty of room for me to park my chair and encountered great courtesy by others in attendance.
    My only complaint is that even though I don’t go to the front for communion or for a blessing, I am always approached by the priest and given an unsolicited blessing anyway. It must seem obvious that I need the blessing because I am in a chair, lol.


  2. Delurking to say Amen!
    And that all of us over at Wheelie catholic (four and two legged alike) are fond of everyone at Planet of the Blind too.


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