I acquired a disability in 2009, and now use a wheelchair to get around and regularly experience accessibility issues, which makes it difficult, or impossible, to get where I want to go. I’m also a Christian, and this blog focuses on inclusion for persons with disabilities (PWD) in Christian churches. Firstly, I need to explain the Great Commission and bring up the miracles performed by Jesus.
The Great Commission
The Great Commission is a command from Jesus to his disciples to share the gospel message with the rest of the world. The Great Commission can be found in the book of Matthew.
Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted. Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” Matthew 28:16–20 NIV.
The mission statement of Christian churches may include the Great Commission, as the churches spread the good news about Jesus.
The miraculous healings by Jesus
During the ministry of Jesus, he performed over thirty miracles and they can be grouped into seven types (this website provides a good explanation). The miracles included feeding people, casting out evil spirits, raising people from the dead, and healing people who were blind, deaf and paralysed.
Great crowds came to him, bringing the lame, the blind, the crippled, the mute and many others, and laid them at his feet; and he healed them. Matthew 15:30 NIV.
Church services regularly include preaching about the miracles of Jesus, and churches may invite people to come forward for healing.
The great commission includes persons with disabilities
Unfortunately, I have encountered problems with accessibility at a few churches including my experience at the conference ‘Man Up 2016‘. The event promised ways of living as Christian men in today’s world. But, when I arrived the only entrance had a number of steps, and later was forced to use the woman’s bathrooms to urinate, as they had no accessible facilities suitable for PWD using wheelchairs.
The experience made me feel uncomfortable as I asked four women about the location of the accessible toilet, and eventually, they suggested I use the woman’s toilets. They vacated the facility and stood guard to prevent women from entering, and this process occurred five times during the conference. Their pastor said they needed additional toilets for the woman, and the accessible toilet hadn’t been required for some time. He promised to review the situation, and a few years later I contacted the church and they still didn’t have accessible facilities for PWD in wheelchairs.
More recently, just after my son married his fiancee, I asked a church member for the location of the accessible bathroom. As soon as I saw the confusion on her face, I knew they didn’t have the facility, and the church pastor kindly attempted to help me. Twenty-five minutes later I urinated into a backyard plant and I asked the pastor whether they’ve had any PWD in wheelchairs attend their church recently. His reply took me by surprise.
‘Yes. We’ve had a few people in wheelchairs attend our church. However, none of them ever ask to use a toilet’.
I didn’t say what I was thinking as I wanted to rejoin the celebrations, and have wedding photos taken with the newly married couple. Now is a good time to say…
The great commission includes persons with disabilities!
Churches should be sharing the gospel message with everyone, and welcoming them into their services and programs. Their facilities need to provide access for PWD including those using wheelchairs. If your church is not doing this…
- You are telling the PWD – ‘You are not welcome at our church’
- You are breaking the law – the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA)
Accessibility for PWD includes
- the ability to take part in church services
- the ability to serve God within the church
A few examples – PWD needs access to the areas of the church, a suitable bathroom, and a car park.
The DDA – Disability Discrimination Act
The Australian government created the DDA in 1992, to give protection against disability discrimination. It includes the areas of employment, buying goods, access to public premises and more. The Aussie Human Rights Commission website provides a good summary of the act of law.
Churches invite the public to their services and must adhere to the DDA. I’ve brought up disability discrimination with about thirty organisations, with the goal of them providing access to PWD. Unfortunately, a few don’t respond or don’t care to provide access, and then I’ve taken the option of reporting them to the Human Rights Commission.
The Human Rights Commission may take on the case, and they encourage discussion between the person making the report, and the organisation in breach of the DDA. The HRC can’t force an organisation to resolve the issue, which seems unfair, as some organisations are getting away with breaking the law. The PWD may choose to take the matter to the Federal Court, but it may require legal advice and cost tens of thousands of dollars.
How many PWD can afford to do this?
Who is responsible for ensuring their property provides suitable accessibility for PWD?
Before acquiring a disability, I knew almost nothing about spinal cord injuries (SCI) and had no friends using wheelchairs. I didn’t need to provide access to my home and I wasn’t breaking the DDA laws.
However, businesses, organisations and churches, that invite the public into their premises, need to understand the DDA laws and the requirement to provide suitable access.
Last year, just before Christmas, I brought up an accessibility issue in my church. It wasn’t possible for PWD using wheelchairs to access the stage, preventing them from serving God from this location. I waited until we were past Easter 2022, and I asked about accessibility to the stage. There had been no progress on a solution, and I was asked for my opinion, and it is always a good idea to include the PWD in accessibility discussions.
I have a visible disability due to the use of a wheelchair and have a good understanding of paraplegia and accessibility. As for solutions, my current home won a few Housing Industry Awards (HIA) for the category ‘specialised housing’, and it was based on my design, knowledge and research.
However, I don’t have experience in providing accessibility solutions for stages. I’m also not the owner or pastor of a church, who should be adhering to the DDA laws and welcoming PWD into their church. My hope is that churches are proactive in their approach to accessibility, rather than being reactive, and include PWD in their church. And when a PWD brings up an accessibility issue, the church can get good advice and make the required changes.
‘And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.’ Corinthians 5:15 NIV
Reporting churches to the Australian Human Rights Commission
I would feel uncomfortable about reporting churches that refuse to provide access to PWD. Why would churches want to exclude PWD in their church when Jesus spent time with PWD and healed many of them?
However, I plan on again visiting the church that hosted the ‘Man Up’ conference, to determine if there are difficulties in accessing the church and having a wee. The fact they took away the accessible bathroom and promised to review the situation, and nothing changed, is a choice that they don’t want PWD in their church. And that irritates me into taking action.
The Australian Christian Churches
My church belongs to the Australian Christian Churches, and the following was taken from their website to explain the purpose of the ACC.
AUSTRALIAN CHRISTIAN CHURCHES is a movement of Pentecostal Churches in voluntary cooperation. Each individual church is self-governing, but commits itself to work together with other churches in the movement for the purpose of mutual support and the spread of the gospel in Australia and the world.
In September 2021, I asked the ACC whether they have guidelines for member churches relating to accessibility for PWD. And if not, why not? I received a prompt reply promising I’d get a phone call about my questions. Eight months later with no phone call, I asked the ACC the same questions and got the same promise. Another month passed and still, no one contacted me. I asked again a month later. I doubt they have considered guidelines for including PWD within member churches, and I continued searching their site for accessibility guidelines. I did find the following …
We believe that God has individually equipped us so that we can successfully achieve His purpose for our lives which is to worship God, fulfil our role in the Church and serve the community in which we live.
If a PWD can’t access areas of the church, would they feel encouraged to worship God, and serve God via a role in the church?
We believe that God wants to heal and transform us so that we can live healthy and prosperous lives in order to help others more effectively.
Possibly everyone, except me, got healed, and there is no need for accessibility guidelines for member churches? (That was a bit sarcastic, but remember that Jesus used sarcasm at times, too, to achieve goals)
Do churches need to stop preaching about the miraculous healings of Jesus until they can welcome PWD into their church?