The Church has always taught compassion towards those in unfortunate circumstances. But in the late 20th century, both church and society put additional focus on people with disabilities, including research, rethinking and advocacy. The Americans with Disabilities Act is one product of that new and different attentiveness to people living with disabilities. In 2011, the ELCA Church Council adopted a social message on people living with disabilities.
Aware that many congregations were already working effectively with people living with disabilities, the framers of the message wrote a 4-part message: theological reflection; confession; calls to renewed commitment and action in the ELCA; calls to action in society.
In the section on theological reflection, the message acknowledges human sin, but does not jump to the conclusion that so many have done erroneously—namely that disability is the result of sinfulness and the person or his/her parents are to blame. The emphasis is on dignity as a gift of God, acknowledging that all are created in God’s image.
In the section on confession, the message challenges individuals and the church to reexamine ways that we as individuals and society as a whole dehumanizes people with disabilities. It lists a number of ways that we as a society make assumptions about people we don’t even know.
The sections on what the ELCA can do, and what society can do are extensive. The ELCA portion gives suggestions and encouragement to congregations, individuals, synods, and the wider church, including other ministries. Suggestions include having accessible worship space, including people with disabilities in leadership roles. In addition, the message commends synods to life up congregations, outdoor ministries, campus ministries and other ministry sites that have made their facilities accessible and who include people with all kinds of disabilities in their ministry and programs.
The Montana Synod is on board with these priorities. One of the major reasons for building a new Synod House is to make it ADA-compliant. Our original building had restrooms in the basement, and our editor for the Living Lutheran Montana Synod Insert was unable to get into our building. The new design is all on one floor, and designed with access in mind.
At the 2013 Churchwide Assembly, when the Campaign for the ELCA was adopted, the Assembly voted to add ministry with disabilities to the projects in the campaign.
In the final section on society, the message affirms the principles that: All people have equal moral and legal status in our society; all people deserve equal protection under the law; and all people have a right to representation and participation in government. Topics of concern include: employment and poverty, education, family caregivers, staffing and training caring professions, disabled veterans, and citizenship.
The message encourages direct action and advocacy in the private sector and in government. The message concludes:
In both church and society much remains to be done to ensure inclusion and justice for people with disabilities. Social and economic justice are not the sum total of what people with disabilities and their caregivers need, but they need justice as urgently as they need support, friendship and love. This church, through its members, various ministries, partners and organizations is being called to support this quest for justice and inclusion in both society and the church and to accompany those who seek it.”
Jessica Crist, Bishop