The Americans with Disabilities Act is still doing its work. Churches should join in.


(RNS) — My firstborn son arrived in 1991, just a year after the Americans with Disabilities Act became law. He was diagnosed with Down syndrome at birth and needed physical therapy at just 3 months of age to make sure he would crawl. 

He’s had to fight to overcome a lot as he’s grown into the young man he is today. But conversations with parents from before the ADA suggest my spouse and I have been comparatively blessed. 

Prior to the ADA, students with special needs or disabilities were effectively warehoused by many public school systems. Parents had little recourse if they felt their child was being treated poorly — and their children often were. 

Meanwhile, adults with disabilities routinely encountered discrimination at work and were often unable to visit restaurants, schools, churches and the like simply because they were not physically able to get up stairs or through the door.

Thirty-four years ago, the ADA helped change that. On July 26, 1990, people and institutions were legally required to recognize those with disabilities or special needs for what they were: People. It began to teach the American public to respect and accommodate everyone, whether typical or atypical. 

This victory didn’t come out of nowhere. It was the result of decades of tireless, often thankless work on the part of those with disabilities and special needs. They and their families, friends and communities helped make the ADA possible. 

The ADA’s establishment of physical access and prohibition of discrimination are essential if those with special needs or disabilities are ever to know justice. But they cannot flourish unless we fully embrace the spirit of the law. They cannot truly thrive without social and spiritual accessibility. 

Americans with Disabilities Act logo. (Courtesy image)

Americans with Disabilities Act logo. (Courtesy image)

We have to learn to live and strive for them, not just against discrimination or physical impediments.

The church has a particularly important role to play in this work. So far, even as physical accessibility issues continue to fall away, cruel prejudice and other “soft” obstacles to inclusion remain widespread. Christians can and should lead in the advocacy for people with disabilities, and for their full inclusion as equals in our society. 

Consider the biblical mandate to look after the poor. Many Christians stop there, concluding that the mandate is straightforwardly about the work of alleviating physical poverty. This is important work, without a doubt. But Jesus spent an incredible amount of time with people with disabilities.

Alleviating poverty isn’t just about addressing material lack where it’s found. It’s about finding, loving and uplifting the people who’ve found themselves marginalized by the rest of the world. 

The church has a chance to build powerful models of immersive, transformative inclusion of people with disabilities for the rest of the world to adopt and improve. 

At Bay Area Christian Church in Northern California, where I’m a pastor, we’ve made our buildings and grounds physically accessible and offer inclusive spaces for those with sensory issues. While this is important, true inclusion goes beyond the physical and permeates the culture.

We have social and educational programs intended to fully integrate anyone, with any need or ability, into the life of our church. We operate inclusive sports and activities across our community, where kids with special needs can participate alongside their typical peers. And our desire is to help other churches do the same.

This isn’t heroism. It’s no more than what Jesus asked us to do. 

Jesus didn’t just heal the leper, after all. He touched the leper. He loved the leper. And this is precisely where Christians are called to follow him. Frankly, it’s also the sort of behavior that would make us a lot better off as a society if taken up on a large scale.

Of course, there are other reasons for the church to push hard on inclusivity both within and without its own walls.

A more inclusive church is a more just, more compassionate, more honest church — and one more likely to appeal to an increasingly skeptical population. It’s more likely to attract and retain talented younger people who have a strong leaning to pursue justice and equality. 

A more inclusive church is also a more radiant church. Christians have an incredible opportunity to change the world, as they are called to do, by leaning into the tremendous felt needs of men and women with special needs and disabilities. And the brighter goodness shines, the more people will be touched by it. 

Tremendous sensitivity to life — to its fragility, its preciousness, its hardship, its joy — springs from relationships with those who have special needs or disabilities. And sensitivity is often uncomfortable, at least at first. It was for me. But we cannot let discomfort solidify into apathy, fear or prejudice. 

We must remember that the ADA is the beginning, not the end. Those with disabilities and their advocates fought to pave the way for their rights. They started the work. We have to help them finish it. It’s up to all of us to make sure all people with disabilities experience greater, holistic inclusivity in our world.

(Russ Ewell is executive minister of the Bay Area Christian Church. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

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