Young man in a wheelchair waiting at the bottom of steps/DepositPhoto

COVID: A lesson for churches on accessibility

By Janine Warrington

Over the past several months, churches across the country and around the world have been creatively adapting to a socially distanced world in crisis. Churches have been using programs with which they may not have been previously familiar, like YouTube and Zoom. Many have adopted the old drive-in movie model to hold services in their parking lots. Some churches have made Bibles and journals available through curbside pickup or mailed activity packages to the children in their church in lieu of usual summer camps. What this shows us is that, when necessary, churches can be flexible and creative, adapting to new situations to best serve their congregants.

My hope is that we can continue to make helpful, creative, and necessary changes to our churches because, presently, our worship services exclude many people. I am speaking of our siblings with developmental, intellectual, and physical disabilities.

Unfortunately, our world has been built on the assumption that there is an average type of person and that if infrastructure and education and healthcare are built to accommodate the “average” person, then everyone will be able to navigate the world just fine. However, as Todd Rose explains, there is no such thing as an “average” person and therefore the way we construct the world is not a good fit for anybody. The idea of disability is relative. A disease or injury that cripples someone’s legs presents itself as a disability when that individual is faced with stairs. But if our world was not built on the assumption that everyone could use stairs, that would no longer be a disability in the same way.

Christian churches usually follow the world’s designs. Church buildings are not substantially different from houses and office buildings, nor is the way our worship services are designed different from our public education systems. In fact, as disability theologian Brett Webb-Mitchell explains, the model of separating off those in need of “special education” has been incorporated into many of our churches. We tell ourselves that those with developmental or intellectual disabilities will not be able to get anything out of our worship services, so we send them to their own room like it’s a daycare — a way to get these individuals out of the way. This is an enormous problem. Webb-Mitchell reminds us that every one of us is a member of the body of Christ (Romans 12; 1 Corinthians 12). When we sever our limbs and send them to a separate area to worship, every part of the body suffers. And even if we don’t physically segregate our congregants with disabilities, the way worship services are designed often still isolate people. Our sermons may be too intellectual and assume that congregants are auditory learners. They may not be engaging for those who need to do something creative, something tactile, something physical, something visual. Perhaps some services are loud and bright and fun, but they don’t provide a place for those with autism or epilepsy to retreat to silence when needed. Our buildings may not accommodate those who are blind or unable to walk. We assume that if we design a worship service for the “average” Christian that it will be accessible to everybody. That assumption is wrong.

In John 9, Jesus heals a man born blind. When his disciples ask who sinned that he would be born blind, Jesus replies, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him” (John 9:3, NRSV). When we read this, we often automatically assume that God is revealed through the healing act that Jesus then performs, but what if there is something about the blind man that, in his blindness, reveals God? What if in cutting off people from our services, whether intentionally or not, we are missing out on God’s revelation?

One of the things we have learned during this pandemic is that you can teach an old church new tricks. When we were at risk of being unable to worship together, churches came up with abundant creative solutions. But there are large portions of our congregations who have been unable to fully participate in our church services long before Covid-19. If we are willing to be creative, to learn and try new things to keep the body of Christ together, then we can include those with developmental, intellectual, and physical disabilities in the planning and presenting of our worship services. We can design new ways of doing worship. In a world of segregation, the church can become an oasis where a disability is not a curse of isolation but rather an opportunity for God’s works to be revealed.

About Janine Warrington

Spokane native Janine Warrington received her Bachelor of Arts in religious studies from Gonzaga University in 2017 and their Master's in divinity from Candler School of Theology at Emory University in 2021. Areas of interest include the history of evangelical America, sexual ethics, LGBTQ+ advocacy, and Scripture studies. They now lives in Atlanta where they work in public theological education. Outside of academia, Janine enjoys cooking, yoga, Broadway musicals, and bothering their younger sister. Pronouns: She/Her/They.

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