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Navigating Church Access: Build A House Where All Can Dwell

Someone meeting me for the first time wouldn’t necessarily think I have disabilities. As of writing this, I stand on my own two feet; I have no need for mobility assistance or other visible aids, like a wheelchair or cane, hearing aids, or white cane, etc.

Even before I shake someone’s hand, significant planning and worrying go into my social interactions. Will I have space away from flashing lights (aka a sensory-friendly space)? Will I be able to eat something friendly to my diet? Will I be able to hold a conversation without unintentionally slurring my words or not properly conveying my thoughts?

In December 2023, Pope Francis’s prayer intention was for those with disabilities and navigating church access. The Vatican released a video where he was quoted as saying “Some of them [those with disabilities] suffer rejection, based on ignorance or prejudice, which makes them marginalized.”

“Creating a fully accessible parish is not only removing physical barriers but also assuming that we need to stop talking about 'them' and start talking about 'us',” Pope Francis said in the video.

A woman's hands on the handles of a walker
A woman's hands on the handles of a walker

The culture of “someone else’s problem” can be fully on display in non-church settings. My wife and I went out for lunch recently when we noticed a woman rolling into the restaurant using a walker. The woman stood by herself, having to stand while waiting to be seated, and no host at the front to greet her. Meanwhile, a party of 10, having already eaten, walked out of the restaurant ahead of us. They passed the woman, who had obvious mobility challenges, without saying a single word to her. In public spaces, even people with visible disabilities are often overlooked.

The experience of the woman using the walker is something every church, and every person who attends a church should work hard to avoid. Not to avoid a reprimand from the Pastor or an awkward situation, but because it is the right thing to do - to provide access and belonging to people with Disabilities and Mental Health Conditions. And, because there’s always that chance that one day, faster than you think, it could be you using a walker just to stand up as a happy, well-fed group passes you.

Proverbs 14:31 says, "Whoever oppresses the (underprivileged) shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honors God."

When a person’s disability is physical, it’s understood that it is a challenge to even start a day. When the disability is invisible, mental, or neurological, the work to function “like everyone else” (frequently referred to as masking) and not be judged or excluded is difficult, to say the least. The “average” person is more likely to wave off an invisible disability as laziness instead of seeking to understand the exhaustion that comes with the strain of trying to "fit in".

A man sits at a table holding a Bible open with one hand and a pen in the other hand next to a journal
A man sits at a table holding a Bible open with one hand and a pen in the other hand next to a journal

When I was first diagnosed with one condition as an adult, it was then that I realized I might not follow the same path as other men. When I participated in faith formation groups and support groups, I found I could not relate easily to anyone else. Either I was too distant from another person’s life story, or I felt like I was viewed or treated differently.

For every gulf that seemed to widen over time, there was a trend where I found myself going against the odds. At one time, laws existed in multiple U.S. states that banned people with my condition from marrying. So when I think of my wife and my marriage as a metaphorical “one in a million”, I'm sure one could find statistics that actually support that.

A wooden church cross in focus with an out of focus sanctuary with people gathered
A wooden church cross in focus with an out-of-focus sanctuary with people gathered

As much as I want to believe in the purest hearts of fellow parishioners, Christians, and believers, that confidence in a stranger’s kindness has to be balanced with the reality that some people seek to be kind when they pity or seek to be kind in order to take advantage of people with disabilities. Being a supportive/supporting husband has helped me learn to advocate for my wife in a way that hopefully reduces others taking advantage of her.

So where does God, our faith, and church access fit into this? I’ve found that trusting God and keeping a solid faith footing works slowly, but it DOES work. Our faith is strengthened by trust in the One who created us, disabilities and all.

For those who hold volunteer or paid positions at churches, the takeaway here is that it is never going to be easy for someone with a disability, especially an invisible disability to approach you and say, “I need assistance or accommodations”. It certainly isn’t easy for me to speak up for myself; it’s a lot easier for me to justify speaking up for another person.

Today, I live in a world where the doubting, destructive thoughts from the past are quieter but they’re still present. The first, best way to help me and others manage what seem to be ordinary tasks is to take our word for it. It can be the difference between a bright day and a day of spiraling sadness.

Here I post the prayer to St. Dymphna, Patron Saint of Mental Illness, for those who need it.

Prayer to Saint Dymphna

Good Saint Dymphna, great wonder-worker in every affliction of mind and body, I humbly implore your powerful intercession with Jesus through Mary, the Health of the Sick, in my present need… (mention intention here)⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀

Saint Dymphna, Martyr of Purity, Patroness of those who suffer with nervous and mental afflictions, beloved child of Jesus and Mary, pray to them for me and obtain my request.

Our Father…

Hail Mary…

Glory Be…

Saint Dymphna, virgin and martyr, pray for us!


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