How intentionally does your faith community include people who have disabilities? I would guess that leadership meetings about buildings and budgets are where the intentions show up: Can we build a ramp to the front door? How much will it cost?
Of course, physical accommodations are important. We want to make sure people with all sorts of abilities and disabilities can participate fully in congregational life. But, while we attend to the construction and technology projects that inclusion demands, are we also making social and spiritual gestures of welcome? How can we express the radical hospitality to which we aspire?
Theresa Soto, ministerial intern at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Salem (OR), asserts that relationships are the key to truly welcome people with disabilities in our communities. Relationships can start with conversations. However, for many able-bodied people, a first conversation with someone who has a disability can be an eggshell-walk, even a mine field. Some avoid the conversation entirely. Others, in their discomfort, may reach out awkwardly and accidentally cause offense.
In a webinar hosted by the UUA Faith Development Office, Soto, who uses a wheelchair, gives guidance for relationship-starting conversations that are grounded in our first Unitarian Universalist Principle, the inherent worth and dignity of each of us. Her advice includes:
- Do not ask someone who appears to have a disability what their body can/cannot do, or why. Do not offer medical guesses or ask questions like, "What is wrong with you?"
- Make an open-ended invitation. For example, rather than ask "Can you do this activity?" say something like "What do you need in order to comfortably participate?"
- Avoid statements that suggest someone has, or is, a problem.
Soto encourages each and all of us to begin or build a relationship with someone in our community who has a disability. To extrapolate, more powerful welcoming can happen when more community members make the effort. Find allies in your congregation to work on this together.
A wheelchair ramp expands your community's physical invitation. What metaphorical "ramps" can expand your social and spiritual invitation to people who have disabilities? Consider how you might encourage the use of respectful, welcoming conversations to make the inclusion of people who have disabilities more real and more full.
Find inspiration and ideas for moving your faith community toward deeper inclusion by watching Theresa Soto's one-hour, July 2015 Faith Development Office webinar, Cultural Competence With Disability: Conversations for Access and Possibility. Transcript also available online.
Soto also serves as vice president of Equual Access, an organization that promotes equality and access for Unitarian Universalists with disabilities. Equual Access has worked with the UUA to create the Accessibility and Inclusion MInistry (AIM) program. Modeled on the Welcoming Congregation and Green Sanctuary programs, the AIM program invites congregations to earn a certificate through study and activities to "welcome, embrace, integrate, and support" people with disabilities and their families.
On YouTube, experience an April, 2015 worship service at First Parish of Bedford (MA) with inclusion as its theme.
Online, see the July 25, 2015 Huffpost Religion article, "Houses of Worship Explore Creative Designs to Serve People with Disabilities."
The UUA recently launched web pages rich with resources for full, meaningful inclusion of people with special needs in religious education and other aspects of UU congregational life. Find links to blogs, books, and organizations for inspiration and guidance.
One important inclusion book, Welcoming Children with Special Needs by Sally Patton, is now out of print. The UUA has posted the book online as a PDF file you may download, at no charge. UUA Bookstore offerings include A Disability History of the United States, by Kim Nielsen and Enabling Acts: The Hidden Story of How the Americans with Disabilities Act Gave the Largest U.S. Minority Its Rights, by Lennard J. Davis.