There are perhaps fewer things that are as instrumental to developing people’s sense of purpose, community, and ethics as religion. Unfortunately, people with disabilities may find themselves marginalized in or excluded from houses of worship and other holy institutions.
According to a recent study, people with disabilities marked by social deficits are less likely to attend religious services. One quarter of people with anxiety disorders, conduct issues, developmental delays and learning disabilities never attend them. The statistic increases to one third for those with autism, speech issues, depression, and brain injuries.
Such factors behind this inequity can include hostility from other congregants as well as inaccessible architecture, ritual, programming, and communication. These issues can undermine congregations’ commitment to serving all who walk through their doors. Excluding people with disabilities and their families also reduces the number of people that are willing to serve them in return.
Still, many religious leaders recognize these issues and have worked to make their communities more inclusive, citing religious scripture to advocate for inclusion. For example, Rev. Brett Web-Mitchell, a Presbyterian minister, has cited Moses’ speech impediment and Noah’s alcoholism to encourage fellow Christians to not overlook those with disabilities, lest they miss out on the talents and gifts they have to offer others.
For some Muslims, inclusion of people with disabilities is deeply enshrined in their holy scripture. While many of them take pride in the fact that Bilal ibn Rabah, the first muezzin, or the official that leads and chants the call to prayer, was black, to make the case that racism has no place in Islam, fewer recognize that the second muezzin, Abdullah ibn Umm Maktoum, who was also the cousin of the prophet Muhammad’s wife Khadijah, was blind.
Meanwhile, the Jewish community is home to many self-advocates who have committed themselves to ensuring that their people’s millennia-old tradition is as accessible and inclusive as possible. Some of their suggestions have included looking at disability through a lens of justice rather than charity. They’ve also discussed the stigma that people with disabilities face regarding love and marriage. Perhaps the greatest step toward inclusion in the Jewish community, however, is the increasing number of rabbis and other community leaders with disabilities.
In addition to theological arguments for inclusion, some religious leaders have taken practical steps to address the inequities people with disabilities may face in religious institutions. LaTonya McIver Penny, a Baptist minister who has two sons with disabilities, is the founder and executive director of Mary’s Grace, a nonprofit dedicated to training civic and religious organizations to better accommodate and include people with disabilities.
Meanwhile, Kansas City, Missouri is home to the FIRE Foundation, or Foundation for Inclusive Religious Education, which commits itself to helping students with disabilities thrive in Catholic schools which are usually unaccustomed to the needs of this key demographic.
In Boston, the Ruderman Family Foundation has offered its Bridges to Faith initiative since 1995. Through this program, members of various congregations, known as Faith Companions, volunteer to help the program’s participants get involved in the respective house of worship, providing them with a greater sense of community.
Although there are still numerous obstacles that can undermine the efforts of people with disabilities to fully participate in religious life, there are also efforts to better address these efforts from both theological and practical standpoints.
Michael Rock is a New York City-based reporter and self-advocate with autism. A graduate of Brandeis University, his work has appeared in Kings County Politics, Chelsea Now, Our Town, Queens County Politics, and WhoWhatWhy.