By Rabbi Steven Wernick and Jay Ruderman
Happily, the world has become more inclusive of people with disabilities. Within the not too distant past, the prevailing notion was that people with disabilities should remain separate and out of sight, in institutions or sheltered workshops. It is now widely understood that people with disabilities have the right to learn, work, and live in the community. While we still have work to do to ensure that our society views disability as central to diversity, we are moving in the right direction.
As secular and religious leaders from different faiths, we believe we should cast our keenest eye toward our own homes – our houses of worship, religious schools, and community organizations. While religious institutions are exempt from many provisions of The American with Disabilities Act (ADA), which took effect on January 26, 1992, we believe that these organizations must follow a greater morality than government statute to include all members of their communities. Faith-based communities should exceed their legal obligations under the ADA to meet a higher standard because our values compel us to so.
Prophet Muhammed has said, “Allah does not judge according to your bodies or appearances, but He scans your hearts and looks into your deeds, sincerity and significance of intentions and all actions, apparent and hidden.”
The Torah states, “You shall not curse the deaf, nor put a stumbling-block before the blind; you shall be in awe of your God: I am the Lord.” [JPS] (Lev. 19:14).
The Bible says, “…. you did not treat me with contempt or scorn. Instead, you welcomed me as if I were an angel of God, as if I were Christ Jesus himself.” Galatians 4:13-14
Further, The National Organization on Disability found approximately 85% of people with and without disabilities state their religious faith is important in their lives. While people with disabilities comprise 20% of the United States population, they reflect only about 5% of the membership of religious communities. Consequently, faith-based communities are missing out on members who will contribute to the vitality, diversity, and continuity of their churches, mosques, and synagogues.
Religious communities can become more inclusive without spending large sums of money or any money all. While important, becoming an accessible religious institution is more than installing an entrance ramp. It involves designing a community in which anyone can access services and activities, moving from being technically “accessible” to being truly inclusive where all members are valued and belongs.
Cost-free changes include featuring pictures of people with disabilities on websites and marketing materials, speaking from the pulpit about disability as a critical element of diversity, and inviting people with disabilities to serve on the board. Conversations about more expensive modifications, such as ramps, elevators, and additional staff members, can follow.
Inclusion of people with disabilities is not simply charity, but rather a civil right in both the secular and ecumenical meaning. Our respective scriptures, our morals, our communities, and our civic laws tell us it is responsibility to lead. Beyond the legal and moral imperatives, the inclusion of people with disabilities is critical for the continuity of our religious communities.
David Bernstein, President and CEO, Jewish Council for Public Affairs
Lawrence E. Couch, Lobbyist, National Advocacy Center of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd
Rev. Terry A. DeYoung, Coordinator, Disability Concerns, Reformed Church in America
Bill Gaventa, Faculty, Summer Institute on Theology and Disability
Rabbi Rick Jacobs, President, Union for Reform Judaism
Nancy K. Kaufman, CEO, National Council of Jewish Women
Brigid Lawlor, Congregational Leader, Sisters of the Good Shepard
Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner, Director, Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism
Rev. Mark Stephenson, Director, Christian Reformed Disability Concerns Ministry
Dr. Sayyid M. Syeed, Former National Director, Islamic Society of North America’s Office of Interfaith and Community Alliances
Jim Winkler, President and General Secretary, National Council of Churches
Kathleen Nofziger Yeakey, Executive Director, Anabaptist Disabilities Network