(RNS) – July is Disability Pride Month and marks the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act on July 26, 1990, a turning point for civil rights. However, mosques, synagogues, churches and other religious institutions are exempt from ADA requirements.
The Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits discrimination based on skills in areas such as public housing, employment, and transportation, and is the most far-reaching civil rights law for people with disabilities in accessibility – for example, many ADA standards only apply to new buildings or remodeling.
In addition, the law largely exempts religious institutions. Religious groups cited prohibitive costs and religious freedom concerns to obtain the exemption in 1990. Because of these exceptions, religious communities are not legally required to have accessible spaces and are also exempt from some ADA employment standards.
Rabbi Julia Watts Belser, longtime handicap rights attorney and associate professor of Jewish studies at Georgetown, said most Americans were unaware that the ADA had religious exceptions. “Many believers are shocked and saddened when they hear about the exemption because it runs counter to their own sense of religious values and ethics,” she said.
Watts Belser said that as a wheelchair user, she had visited many churches or synagogues where she could not use the toilet. In some synagogues she has access to the sanctuary, but not to the Bima, the platform from which the Torah is read. “As a rabbi who uses a wheelchair, this is a very clear reminder that so many rooms were not built for me,” she said.
Madeline Jarrett, who has a chronic condition that affects her mobility, has had a similar experience. “Although I have been an active Catholic all my life, I have never been an acolyte, regular reader or Eucharist,” said Jarrett. “The main reason for this is the lack of railings on and / or ramps near altar steps.”
“Disability Pride – and Catholicism in its most authentic form – rejects the hierarchy that claims that certain bodies are ‘better’ or more valuable than others,” said Jarrett, who has a Masters of Divinity from Boston College and is starting her PhD. in systematic theology there in the fall.
Although Disability Pride is not recognized nationally (it was a designation by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio in 2015), it has taken on a life of its own in recent years; Disability Pride parades are held in the United States and currently TikToks with the hashtag #DisabilityPride have been viewed more than 270 million times on the app.
For Bishop Megan Rohrer of the Sierra Pacific Synod in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Disability Pride is something to celebrate all year round. “I identify as a disabled person because I am neurologically diverse,” says Rohrer. “I like to think that I party all the time. I think the fact that my brain sees the world differently is one reason I was elected bishop because where some people see a difficult problem, sometimes I see ways and means of working together. “
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Rohrer agreed that the accessibility of a place of worship sends a message about who belongs there. “We put up banners on the outside of our buildings saying that everyone is welcome, but the architecture of our buildings restricts reception,” said Rohrer.
While the ADA’s religious exemptions mean that places of worship are not legally required to be ADA-accessible, this hasn’t stopped people with disabilities and allies from breaking down ableist barriers.
Roher said that the council at the last church they served, Grace Lutheran in San Francisco, decided that whenever something needed to be fixed – a toilet, for example – she would replace it according to ADA standards, rather than repairing items that don’t match the code.
Rohrer also recommended other ways to improve accessibility, such as upgrading lighting and sound systems to avoid buzzing that helps people with overstimulation. Watts Belser suggested providing captions, sign language interpreters, and large print and Braille Bibles or prayer books.
Ben Bond, a candidate for a Master of Divinity at Yale Divinity School, noted that attending accessibility is ultimately beneficial for everyone. “All skills are temporary,” said Bond, “so we all have an interest in disability relief.”
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Due to a physical disability, Bond has difficulty climbing stairs, and when he arrived at the Yale Divinity campus in the fall of 2019, he found that the YDS housing could not accommodate him.
“Just as churches are exempt from building ADA-compliant structures, the same thing happened with YDS enclosures – none of them have elevators,” Bond said. He soon met Daryl Denelle, a fellow student of Divinity who also couldn’t find student apartments. Together, the two founded Divine Abilitys, a student group created for community and support for people with disabilities.
Bond said he and two other group members had been hired to hold handicapped accessible services in the chapel of the deity school. In this role, the group has not only dealt with physical barriers to accessibility, but also with the way in which ableist barriers show up in liturgy and language.
“Just think of ‘Amazing Grace’ – ‘I was blind once but now I see,'” Bond said, referring to the Ableist language in the classic Christian hymn.
Rohrer said churches often use metaphors about “walking lame” or “speaking in silence” to describe faith, but “Biblical texts that view disability as demonic have been really harmful to many people.”
For Jarrett, Disability Pride is a time to reject harmful notions of disability and instead adopt a basic Christian teaching: “That our body and many elements of our physical world are our gateways to access to the divine.”
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