More than Building Design

By Robyn Douglass
Correspondent

Colorful notes are being stuck up as fast as ideas can be written down. It’s a sunny Saturday afternoon in South Australia, and in one Anglican parish, people are participating in a workshop on “Ableism.”

They are writing down ideas that would make the church more accessible and welcoming for people with a disability. It’s not difficult: hearing loops, self-opening doors, wider passages, properly accessible toilets, captions on Zoom services.

Changing physical structures costs money, but that’s probably the easy part. Changing minds is the real challenge. Do people assume you are of average intelligence? Can you move easily around church? Do people look at you with pity? Do people claim you are an inspiration just for getting out of bed?

B.J. (Betty-Jean) Dee-Price trained as a social worker and managed a statewide service for young people.

There was a lot of power in that role, “being the deliverer of good stuff for ‘those people — the poor, the needy’ described in the Bible,” she said.

Sixteen years ago, B.J. and her husband had a son with cerebral palsy. She was told she would never work again and that their marriage would not survive. Sad and depressed, questioning and bargaining with God, B.J. found herself praying for a way out.

But God had other ideas. The answer to her prayer was powerful.

“God said, ‘He will be a leader and you need to help him,’” B.J. said. “I became the needy person. But it wasn’t a tumbling down, it was a growing up.

“I grew up — in a way that I would not want to go back. It’s not an easy path, and sometimes very hard to watch my child suffer, to be dealing with what he often has to deal with — but, my goodness, what a blessing and what insight.

“A doorway opened up to me and the social worker became somebody very different. It’s like my life began at that point.”

B.J.’s experience has informed her academic career. She completed a Ph.D. in complex communication access needs for those with disabilities. She has consulted on high-powered advisory committees, and ran for state parliament representing the South Australian Dignity Party. She is not shy about challenging structures that make life with a disability more difficult.

The traditional expectation in Australia is that people with disabilities have been hidden, segregated, kept away from the mainstream. Ableism is the assumption that people with disabilities need “fixing” and defines them by their disability.

Around 18 percent of Australians live with a disability, but their lives would be much easier if all buildings were designed well, if they could see and hear and experience what the rest of us take for granted.

Are churches any better?

“No. They are not better,” B.J. says. “They have a potential for greatness, but there are just so many ironies within the church.

“The church is a microcosm of society in general. Most people in church have been segregated from people with a disability,” she said. “Very rarely have kids grown up with someone like my son as a peer.

“Folks not living with disability can form a type of able-privilege where they don’t see the needs or plan for others. Sometimes people with disabilities internalize ableism — they learn to be ashamed and hide and go with the segregation.”

The Bible and liturgy often don’t help, B.J. said. There are many Old Testament rules about cleanliness, wholeness, blemishes. Some readings cry for context, and intercessions often need more thoughtfulness.

She takes inspiration from John 9:3, where Jesus corrects people who suggested disability was a punishment: “It was neither that this man sinned, nor his parents; but it was so that the works of God might be displayed in him.”

Some congregations and schools are bright spots, but these remain the exception, and people with disabilities are not seen in the church’s leadership roles.

Lorna Hallahan has wrestled with the church’s attitude for years. An associate professor of social work at Flinders University, Hallahan is also an amputee.

“I think of ableism as the ‘othering’ process related to enforcement of rigid norms about who is a valued citizen,” she told TLC. “The Anglican Church is not one thing. It is a large, sometimes loose, multilayered social organization that touches ordinary folk through its parishes and human service organizations.

“At these touchpoints we see a wide variety of people many bearing impairments (often related to age), chronic illnesses, including prolonged mental distress and substance abuse; trauma histories, including relationship loss and domestic violence and so on. Some achieve leading lay roles. The point about this is that people with disabilities tend not carry socially normative views about who belongs to the body of God. They know that the gospel relates to them.

“There are others who don’t even make it to the door, experiencing the ableism that is reflected in no access, no tolerance for rowdy or pacey worshippers. In my experience, some parishes operate as zones of tolerance and are inclusive. All these relationships, however, place people with disabilities in the recipient class (of human services and parishioner status).”

B.J. has a wry smile when she describes how frequently well-meaning Christians approach her, and her son, to pray for his “wholeness.”

“I’ve had it done to me as a mom,” she says. And while she says she is tempted to retaliate with a prayer against bad breath or rudeness, instead she says, “He is already whole.”

B.J. asks instead if they can pray together about the barriers that exacerbate disability.

“The experience of disability would not be so terrible if the world would accommodate him and validate him,” she says.

“If he did not have to fight for his place in mainstream society — his impairments would still be there but his ‘disabilities’ (caused by inflexible environment) would be a lot easier.

“Most of our hardship has nothing to do with cerebral palsy. It’s to do with how the rest of the community responds to it.”

Many will simply not approach the church because they fear being marginalized despite the rhetoric of inclusion.

B.J.’s reflection on their life also frames the most important question for Australian churches.

“It is difficult,” she said. “But the greatest challenge is the knowledge that we were not invited to something because it is ‘too hard.”’