A few weeks ago, pastors and congregational leadership as well as members were thrown into chaos as sanctuary doors were shuttered to prevent the spread of the Coronavirus and flatten the curve. Pastors and church technicians were required to find new ways to engage their congregations and provide semblance of congregational life and worship. To say this has been challenging is probably an understatement and I salute all the efforts to reach out and support the respective mission of the congregations.
What did this sudden change from in-house worship to online worship mean to the disability community? For those with physical disabilities, the switch may have provided better accessibility for those with internet connections. They no longer needed to worry about steps, ramps, elevators, hard pews, scents and other barriers to accessing a facility. For those with communication disabilities the switch to online worship meant more barriers. Many people with hearing loss, cognitive disabilities and other disabilities could not fully participate without captioning or sign interpreters. For those with mental illness, online worship provided a haven to be able to express emotions and stress without anyone looking.
There are many advantages and disadvantages to both in-house and online worship for the disability community. Historically, the world operates on the premise of ableism, a type of discrimination in which able-bodied individuals are viewed as normal and results in discrimination against the disability community and influences physical and social environments. This, for the most past, is unconscious. We view ability and make assumptions based of our perceptions. We assume everyone can hear the sermon when one in four sitting in the congregation may not be able to hear the sermon very well but will not self-identify as needing accommodation for whatever reason.
How will this pandemic change the face of the congregation? Currently one in five people experience disability. The data is not in, but current studies indicate that the number of people with disabilities will increase. There will be an increase of hidden disabilities as the virus damages the heart, kidneys, lungs and other parts of the body. There will be those who can no longer get into the building. Many will experience some type of mental illness. Some will not be able to leave home to attend in person because the fear will be too great. There will be those who will not be able to breathe well enough to endure the presence of perfume and aftershave. Changes in the face of the congregation will be great and for many, not visible.
Moving forward will be challenging but it is an opportunity for growth. It is an opportunity for change. It is an opportunity to think more globally and to promote faith inclusion of the disability community. It is an opportunity to put disability justice on the advocacy agenda and recognize that accessibility helps everyone. Now is the time to review the church mission. Do you reach out to the disability community? Often this outreach only needs for the activities and events already offered to be more readily accessible. Now is a good time to review church policies and procedures and establish a universal access policy or scent free policy. Online worship opens a whole new way of providing communication access. There are many ways to caption. You never know who needs the words coming across the screen. New moms, people with hearing loss, families with day sleepers all benefit from captioning.
As I think about this issue I am reminded of the parable of the lost sheep. The shepherd goes after the one, leaving the many, rejoicing in finding the lost sheep. The lack of faith inclusion is much like a lost sheep. The act of finding and providing for the lost sheep is an act of justice and justice is what love looks like in public.
Photo by Alex Hay on Unsplash
Candace Low, a member of Asylum Hill Congregational Church in Hartford, CT, recently retired as Executive Director of Independence Unlimited, Inc., a Hartford Center for Independent Living, after serving 18 years. Ms. Low has been an advocate for ...