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When the Religion and Disability Program was founded in 1989, those of us at the National Organization on Disability (N.O.D.) were filled with can-do optimism. Our goals were clear: first to transform Americas congregations of all faiths into places of welcome for 54 million children and adults with physical, sensory and mental disabilities; and second, to support people with disabilities and their families who seek to be full participants in their congregations. Today, while holding to those same goals, we have a greater understanding of the multiple responsibilities of congregations as well as a greater appreciation of the many gifts and talents that people with disabilities are able to share with them. We have come to understand that congregations and their leaders want to be welcoming, but do not always know how to do it how to relax around and truly enjoy a child or adult with disability, how to empower their leadership skills, and how to work to change old attitudes and stereotypes. And although many national faith and denominational groups have provided congregations with curricula and video resources, staff assistance, and in some cases low interest loans, welcoming people with disabilities has not yet become a social justice priority.
In addition, people with disabilities themselves have not always clearly expressed their unique needs and hopes, many times retreating from their congregations in frustration or anger. This is discouraging for everyone.
Over the years, N.O.D.s Religion and Disability Program has provided a variety of resources and services. Our three popular guides (That All May Worship, Loving Justice, and From Barriers to Bridges) have sold over 70,000 copies. A new booklet, Money and Ideas: Creative Approaches to Congregational Access, has been published in cooperation with the respected Alban Institute. Since 1993, a total of 143 That All May Worship community-building conferences have been held around the country. Our Web site (www.nod.org) includes creative features such as Journey of a Congregation and Audit of Barriers. And we have compiled the N.O.D. Interfaith Directory of Religious Leaders with Disabilities. The directory lists contact information for religious leaders with physical, sensory or mental disabilities. Our hope is that it fosters communication among ordained clergy, religious educators, seminary faculty, and seminarians who have similar disability experiences.
In anticipation of the millennium, N.O.D. established the Accessible Congregations Campaign (ACC) with the very specific goal of enrolling 2,000 of Americas congregations that were willing to identify and remove barriers to the full participation of people with disabilities. We asked congregations to sign a commitment form which acknowledged that People, with and without disabilities, are encouraged in our congregation to practice their faith and use their gifts in worship, service, study and leadership. One by one, small and large churches and parishes, synagogues and temples returned their ACC Commitment Forms to us. On May 3, 2001, the 2,000th committed congregation (the First United Methodist Church of Germantown in Philadelphia) was acknowledged and thanked at a press conference at Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, D.C. Readers may want to view the Accessible Congregations Campaign on the N.O.D. Web site at www.nod.org, where the names of committed congregations are listed by state. If your congregation is not on the list, then print out the commitment form and review it with the leaders and advocates in your congregation.
Along with over 2,100 commitment forms came letters from religious leaders and disability advocates describing how their churches and synagogues had become more welcoming. Accessible parking spaces had been designated; ramps and elevators had been installed and pew cuts made, so that wheelchair users could sit anywhere they chose within the congregation; restrooms had been made ADA compliant; lighting and sound systems improved; sign language interpreters hired and materials made available in alternative formats.
The leaders of some congregations enrolled in the campaign, like the National Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C., expressed the view that barriers of attitudes were often more difficult to remove than barriers of architecture. The Reverend M. Craig Barnes said just that in his sermon, Called to Make Room on July 22, 2001: The greatest barriers that we find are not architectural, but barriers of the heart.
As mothers of adult sons with mental retardation (Ginnys son Peter of the Christian faith, Lorraines son Adam of the Jewish faith), we were particularly excited when religious leaders told us of children and adults with developmental disabilities who were full participants in congregations. Their letters and e-mails were filled with words like dignity, respect, inclusion and blessing. These congregations took seriously the ACC theme, Access: It Begins in the Heart.
A temple in Gary, Indiana was one of the first congregations to enroll in the campaign. The rabbi stated that although the congregation was not wealthy, the membership believed being open to all was important.
From a committed Presbyterian Church in Virginia, we received a letter with these words: God has been greatly blessing our AccessAbility ministry this year with new resources and growing interest and participation by congregation members. Seventeen teens recently signed up to be buddies for our special needs children. The greatest blessing, however, has been the visible change in attitude on the part of many people who before had simply been unaware, uncomfortable, or uninterested. The message seems finally to be getting through that rather than being weaker members of the church body, those with disabilities are indispensable for its proper functioning.
The pastor of a Church of the Brethren in Pennsylvania sent a letter to us which enclosed the ACC Commitment Form. His concluding words were, We take seriously the value of every individual in our community and what their special needs may be. We continue to work very hard at resolving those needs as they come to our attention.
It was from the Council for Jews with Special Needs, Inc. that we first learned of the welcoming temple in the Reform tradition in Phoenix, Arizona. When they enrolled in the Accessible Congregations Campaign, we learned that their worship space and religious school were totally accessible. We also learned that a group of young adults with developmental disabilities had held their high school prom at the temple.
Recently we received a letter from a Catholic church in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. It began with these words: We were excited to be part of the Accessible Congregations Campaign and wanted to update you as to what we have done in our church. That update included the fact that parishioners with disabilities serve in all capacities, including greeters and gift bearers and participants in the homily and music.
One of the most welcoming congregations we have discovered is a non-denominational church in Marin County, California. Presently, it has about 15 members with developmental disabilities. Some are regular ushers, some are members of the mens and womens groups, some have joined committees, one man leads the hospitality committee, a few have attended weekend retreats, and several have provided music during the Sunday worship service. In addition, a number of families have befriended members with developmental disabilities and included them in weekend and after-church activities. This committed congregation has come to realize that the most important accommodation we can offer someone with disability is the gift of friendship.
We close with one final thought. The Accessible Congregations Campaign is proof that inclusive, welcoming, committed congregations of many faiths exist throughout the nation. They recognize that all of us, with and without disabilities, have gifts and talents to share. They recognize that as there are no barriers to Gods love, there should be no barriers in Gods House.
Ginny Thornburgh is Director of the Religion and Disability Program, and Lorraine Thal is Coordinator of the Accessible Congregations Campaign, both with the National Organization on Disability, Washington, D.C. They may be reached at 202/293-5960, 202/293-5968 (TDD), or by e-mail at Thal@nod.org. The Web address is www.nod.org.
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Retrieved from the Web site of the Institute on Community Integration, University of Minnesota (http://ici.umn.edu). Citation: Gaylord, V., Gaventa, B., Simon, S.R., Norman-McNaney, R., Amado, A.N. (Eds.). (2002). Impact: Feature Issue on Faith Communities and Persons with Developmental Disabilities, 14(3) [online]. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, Institute on Community Integration. Available at http://ici.umn.edu/products/impact/143.
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