A young girl complained about her pastor walking from side to side on the platform while he was preaching because, she said, “I’m deaf and I can’t lip-read when he’s facing in the opposite direction”.
We just don’t think about the needs of others when it comes to designing buildings and programmes. We believe that what works for us will work for others, and yet this is not true. A person who is blind needs extra lighting in corridors and is badly distracted by noise, especially when it is sudden and insistent, like the noise of a weed-eater or a power drill. Similarly, a person in a wheelchair needs ramps where others would be comfortable walking up stairs, and extra space for manoeuvring as they get out of the vehicle in the car park.
In years gone by, disabled people would simply be overlooked in a community unless they had some dedicated relative or friend who would see to their needs. History records that people with certain afflictions would even be rejected from society altogether on the grounds of not being able to participate fully. For example, in Old Testament times, Levites who were visually-impaired, lame or afflicted with a skin disease were disqualified from entering the temple to serve as priests. More recently, the story of The Hunchback of Notre Dame tells of a physically deformed man who literally had to hide away from the community because they found him so repulsive.
Nowadays, we have a more enlightened view towards people with disabilities but prejudices still exist. One would think that churches would be at the forefront of welcoming the physically challenged, based on the Scripture verse, “There is no Jew or Greek, servant or free, male or female, for you are all one in Jesus Christ”. Yet, because of the old-fashioned design of many church buildings, these people cannot even get in the door, let alone be welcomed with innovative and inclusive approaches to fellowship. Often there is a steep set of stone steps which are treacherous to those using crutches or a white cane. Once inside, there is little space for a wheelchair beside the pew or for a guide dog to lie at the feet of his owner. Few preachers are accompanied by a sign language interpreter for the deaf, and tables in the tea area are often too high or too low for a person in a wheelchair to sit at comfortably. This is before we even get to the topic of toilets and basins, which invariably fall far short of the standards for accessible fittings.
This is why I am so excited about a new initiative in South Africa called “Ramp Up”, aimed specifically at churches and geared towards raising awareness of the needs of disabled church-goers. It has a website where one can find practical guidelines for adapting old buildings and practices to cater for the wheelchair-bound, the visually-impaired and the deaf. There is a lovely reference on the organisation’s home page to the banquet in heaven, at which the witness cries, “There is room for everyone!”, This is true. In the kingdom of heaven, everyone is catered for. It is just here on earth, in our present churches and halls, and among our unthinking communities and groups, that the physically challenged still get overlooked.
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