How the church fails to include people with disability

Picture the traditional structure of a church building: timber arch doors leading into a grand room with high ceilings, pews aligned in perfect symmetry, divided by an aisle that leads you to the communion table and minister’s pulpit.

It’s beautiful, no doubt, but there is almost always one often overlooked feature which discriminates and causes distress – steps.

Many church buildings have steps, and only steps, and for anyone with a physical disability this is prohibitive architecture.

They may be at the building’s entrance or they may be leading up to the platform where the minister stands, but if there is no adjoining ramp then, for someone like Joedy Meers, they are more than an obstruction – they are a statement: You’re not welcome.

And for Joedy this is doubly disheartening because church is not only her place of worship, it’s her employer. Joedy, 47, who has cerebral palsy, has recently been placed as minister of Lakes Entrance Uniting Church after her ordination in January.

Cerebral palsy is a permanent physical disability that affects body movement, muscle control, coordination, posture and balance. To compensate, Joedy gets around with the aid of walking sticks or, occasionally, a wheelchair.

“The communion table is often up on a stage with stairs and that says to me that maybe I’m able to sit in a front seat, but I’m not welcome to be up at the altar, even through that’s my calling,” Joedy says.

This isn’t the first time Joedy has been made to feel unwelcome at church. When she started to venture into ministry while a part of the Anglican church, the priest in charge of ordinands suggested she try something else.

Joedy says the Church doesn’t really understand disability and it often isn’t a space where people with disability can ask for what they need.

“The onus is put on the person to make their lives different so we can accept them rather than making our institution OK so they can become part of it,” she says.

“I have to ask for chairs with arms because otherwise I just fall off them. It sounds ridiculous, but that’s what happens.

“As a person with a disability you always have to second guess what you need to do in order to function because others aren’t going to make it easier.”

Joedy gives an example. The first time she led communion, the head Anglican priest handed the cup to her left hand.

However, Joedy’s condition mainly affects her left side, so when she was given the cup she had a muscle spasm and spilled the wine over her robes and the altar.

“If you can have an honest conversation about this stuff, people get it, but there is a bit of bridge to build before they do,” she says.

“I guess I’ll always be a bridge builder, but sometimes it gets hard, sometimes I actually need people to do something about it.”

Joedy has a saying which sums up a lot of what needs to happen in the disability sphere – “proximity changes perception”.

“The more people get used to you as a person, the more they can perceive you as the same, not other or different,” she says. “Most people don’t make the time to spend with people with disabilities. There’s a cringe factor there. I suspect we have a long way to go.”

To learn more about disability inclusion, click here.

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