I love singing that worship song that has the line “All are welcome in this place” in the chorus. But recent events have highlighted for me that the devil is in the details here.

Results of a study about Faith participation from a new poll of 3,839 members of the disability community were released last week by RespectAbilityUSA, a non-profit organization working to enable people with disabilities to have the opportunity to achieve the American dream. In addition to the nearly one out of five Americans who has a disability, an earlier study released by Laszlo Strategies found that 51% of Americans have a close friend or family member with a disability. 25% of the Jews with disabilities and their family members said that religion was “very important” in their life, compared to 41% of Catholics, 59% of Protestants and 80% of Evangelicals.

A National Organization on Disabilities study found that only 47% of people with disabilities attend church at least once a month, most likely due to architectural, programmatic, communication and attitudinal barriers. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed in 1990, it provided religious institutions with an exemption from the law if they did not accept federal money or services. Therefore many religious of all faiths have no legal obligation to serve or employ people with disabilities. This “pass” has hindered the implementation of simple accommodations such as accessible doors and ramps to enable people with disabilities to participate in religious services and programs.

The ADA gave religious institutions an exemption from a legal obligation on basic Civil rights, but that does not change what everyone should recognize as their moral, ethical, and religious obligation to do the right thing. Access means being able to get to the pulpit and the potluck, to the bathroom and the bulletin, to materials to teach Sunday school and to sign language interpretation of the youth program. www.disabilitiesandfaith.org gives many other examples of attitudinal and programmatic access.

Religions have long been known for their charitable works including many institutions for serving people with disabilities. A recent article talked about a Deaf Church in the Houston area celebrating its 90th anniversary. The Xavier Society for the Blind was founded in 1900. It provides a lending library of Catholic materials in alternate formats like braille and recorded materials to help blind and visually impaired clergy, religious and laity to participate actively in parish life. Many denominations have issued statements from national offices about full inclusion of people with disabilities.

Recently when I needed a book my parish was going to use in a Lenten study I looked first at Xavier Society’s lending library. Neither they nor any other source had the book available for loan. The publisher had it available for purchase on CD for three times the print version’s cost. I often tell people in my talks on disability issues that if they want to sign up to become a person with a disability, they’d do well to become rich as well because often accommodations cost more and there’s not some government program that will do it for you.

As I bemoaned my search for the Lenten book, others on listservs for blind Catholics I’m on chimed in with their access problems. Issues ranged from transportation to Mass to requests for bulletins and hymns in alternate formats that were unmet or just plain ignored. With the New Pope’s focus on including people with disabilities in Catholic life and institutions, it’ll be interesting to see what changes.

Religious bodies can make statements, but it’s individual people who make us welcome. It’s the religious education director who asks “would you help lead the Lenten study”. It’s the person at the publishing house who decides that it is the right thing to sell the book on CD to me for the same price as the print copy. It’s the fellow parishioner who is on parish council who lobbies that some of our money for charities go to Xavier Society because they publish the weekly Mass readings in braille so I can read Scripture at Mass. It’s the church secretary who sends me the electronic copies of the bulletin and the monthly newsletter at the same time as she sends them to be printed. It’s the author who sends me an electronic copy of his book and then follows through with Bookshare to make it widely available to print handicapped readers. It’s the kids who run up and ask if they can pet my guide dog before Mass who make her feel welcome.

When we’re paying attention, we each can make sure that all are welcome in our places of worship.

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