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Disability: more steps to take

19 August 2022

Complete access is a theological issue, say the authors of a new work, Naomi Lawson Jacobs and Emily Richardson


ACCESS tells us whether the banquet table is designed for disabled people or designed to exclude us. In church buildings that are not designed for our bodies and minds, disabled people often know that we do not belong. We know it in our bodies, when we do not fit in the pews or at the altar. We know it in our experience, when we ask for access and are not taken seriously.

Churches are spaces of power, where disabled people are “out of place” when our bodies and minds are pushed to the edge of the holiest spaces. We are physically marginalised, not just by non-disabled architects who cannot imagine us among a congregation, but by majority non-disabled church communities and their everyday decisions about how to use the spaces where worship and church life happens.

This is usually down to thoughtlessness rather than intentional discrimination. But disabled people experience the same exclusion, regardless. When we quietly leave, churches may stay ignorant of the barriers they have created, never knowing why we left.

Disabled people are left carrying the pain of being shut out of community, wondering why the house of God has no room for us.

Access is theological. But, drawn in by the ableist values of the world, many churches do not yet understand the theological importance of access and justice for disabled people. Reflecting on the moment when Jesus gives Peter the keys to the Kingdom, Lamar Hardwick argues that the Church was established to give access to God’s Kingdom, for all of humanity.

And, he says, Jesus had a few things to say about giving the seat of honour — the best access — to those the world values least, as he observed how the Pharisees treated a disabled man they had invited to dinner.

Give your place of honour to another, Jesus advised them, so that you will be honoured when the host comes. These are the values of the reign of God, which lives out justice with and for disabled people, honouring those left on the scrapheap of society.

Yet churches have rarely been the accessible communities that Jesus intended them to be. Speaking as a church leader, Hardwick confesses: “We have underestimated value. On the rare occasion when people with disabilities are present at the table, they have been excluded from the seats of honour. We have focused on selecting the right seats, and we have neglected to sip from the right cup.”

As we have been relegated to the edges of church buildings, so that we do not spoil the experience of worship for the majority, disabled people have been placed far from the valued heart of church communities.

ABLEIST churches cannot honour disabled people — not while they share the values of the world, esteeming most those whom society considers beautiful, acceptable, and powerful, and making this clear in where they devote their money and resources.

Churches’ budgets reveal their priorities. When churches argue that their resources to improve access are limited, they are working from within a capitalist scarcity paradigm rather than trusting in God’s grace to support more diverse communities.

We recognise that some congregations are custodians of structures built in the Victorian, or even the medieval era, inaccessible by nature and design. Working within these architectural constraints, changes to layouts may take time and involve cost. In communities that offered genuine hospitality, however, many of our storytellers were willing to work around barriers with their churches, forgiving less-than-perfect access.


As Nancy Mairs reflects, “In asking that the entrance to a building be ramped, that the numbers on an elevator panel be Brailled, that emergency services be equipped to communicate with people who cannot hear or speak clearly, no one expects all impediments to be miraculously whisked away. In insisting that others view our lives as ample and precious, we are not demanding that they be made perfect.” Open doors are not a finite resource, and neither is love.

Practical disability access is far from a finished project in churches. Access to buildings is only the beginning of disability justice in churches.

But, in many of the stories we heard, churches were not yet offering the bare minimum of access, leaving disabled people knocking on the church gates. Without basic physical access, many disabled people still cannot enter a church, stay for the length of a service, or participate as active, valued members of a community.

And the more that disabled people get the message that churches are not places where we receive an equal, embodied welcome, the less likely we are to be found in the pews. Without just, equitable access that tears down ableist strongholds, the institutional Church will become increasingly irrelevant to disabled people.

BUT accessing church need not be a disempowering experience for disabled people — not when decisions about access are made together with us, in consciously interdependent communities that value us, with all our gifts, limits, and challenges to ableism. Access is the gospel. When our disabled storytellers could sit and fit among the people of God, they knew that they were valued, just as they are.

Enabling access begins with listening and learning from the experts — disabled people — about the barriers that keep the gates closed to each of us, and how congregations can dismantle those barriers with, not just for, disabled people.

Churches willing to be transformed into “communities of belonging and misfitting” will create space where disabled people are honoured, just as we are. They will value our disruption and difference, as a prophetic call for justice. They will not hide us away in a side chapel. They will not ask us to leave disability at the church door.

When they do, everyday ableism will be transformed into everyday justice.
So, what would it mean, in practice, for a church to offer a seat of honour to disabled people? What does it mean for a church to be radically accessible in every aspect of their worship and community life — their church culture?

To understand that, we need to listen to a wider group of disabled people about the barriers that they have faced to participation, in churches where inaccessible cultures make no space for them. We will listen, too, to those who have found communities where they can participate, serve, and lead, as together they open the gates to all.

“IMAGINE, for a moment, what it would be like to live in a culture of accessibility. Where accessibility is muscle memory.” This is how the disabled writer Taylor Katzel thinks about accessible cultures. He imagines leaders and members of communities, disabled and non-disabled, working together to weave access into everything they do.

In an accessible culture, disabling barriers are dismantled before they can become the norm — whether those barriers are systemic, physical, or attitudinal.

Churches installing new video screens can ask how they will make sure blind people know what’s being shown on the screen; they can make a commitment to using subtitles for deaf people and those with auditory-processing issues; they can plan to reserve a few seats where people with energy-limiting conditions can see the screen while seated.

Churches that give out a service sheet can include a guide to the service, explaining potentially mystifying moments and clarifying unspoken rules. That would help not just neurodivergent people, but those who are new to churches, too. A church with an accessible culture makes sure that a diverse community can participate in everything they do. That’s not a burden on a church — it’s a cultural shift that benefits everyone.

Every church has a culture, which we could simply define as the way we “do church”. A church’s culture lives out its values, embodied in all the ways its members think, act, and serve each other. Disabled people meet with justice — or exclusion — as communities make choices about how they do church.

Storytellers told us about communities that “did church” in normative ways, creating barriers that left disabled people on the edge. And, while some cultural values in churches exist for spiritual reasons, some ableism is about simple resistance to change. Those with non-disabled privilege in church communities may be reluctant to change how they do church for one disabled person.

Often, when storytellers asked for changes to make church cultures more accessible to them, they were told: “In this church, we’ve always done it this way.” Ableist church cultures can be rooted in pastoral power, when non-disabled leaders expect to make all the decisions in churches, and do not welcome disabled people’s knowledge about access or calls for justice.

These were churches that invited our storytellers, and even had good intentions to include them, but which were not always willing to transform to welcome disabled people. But, in churches that set out to weave access into every part of church life, as a community practice of justice rather than an afterthought, disabled storytellers were enabled to participate, serve, and lead.

This is an edited extract from
At the Gates: Disability, justice and the Churches by
Naomi Lawson Jacobs and Emily Richardson, which gathered the stories of more than 50 disabled Christian “storytellers”. The book is published by Darton, Longman & Todd at £14.99
(Church Times Bookshop £13.49), 978-1-91365-718-5.

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