The Graham family, including Ashley, 7; left, mom Lindsay;J.D.; 6, Kyle, 4; and Jason, found acceptance at First Baptist Orlando, which has a special needs ministry for children. (Ricardo Ramirez Buxeda / MCT)
Lindsay Graham grew up in the same church attended by her parents and grandparents, and she expected the same would be true for her children. That changed when her son, J.D., was diagnosed with autism at age 2.
There were outbursts and tantrums, calls in the middle of the church service from the Sunday school teacher that J.D. was being disruptive. There were disapproving looks from other members of the congregation. Even if they didn’t say it, Graham, 33, knew what they were thinking: Can’t you keep your child under control?
“I felt very ostracized because he was always misbehaving. We just didn’t fit that perfect family mold,” said Graham.
It was time to find another church, one equipped to handle children with disabilities. They ended up at First Baptist Orlando, which has a special needs ministry for children.
“At First Baptist, we found a place where we fit. I feel people don’t judge because you see a lot of kids with special needs,” Graham said.
Fifty million Americans have some form of disability and those numbers continue to grow as the population ages, the number of children with autism and attention deficit disorders grows, and soldiers return home from Iraq and Afghanistan with missing limbs and post-traumatic stress disorders.
But those numbers are not reflected in the pews, where accommodations for people with physical and mental handicaps are limited. A growing number of adults face the challenge of finding churches, synagogues, temples and mosques that are open and accepting of people with disabilities.
Martha Knowles, who has been deaf since the age of 7, said it is always difficult for deaf people to find a church that provides interpreters who can accurately translate the service through signing. And even when they do find such a church, sometimes they encounter resentment from members of the congregation.
“Some churches don’t feel comfortable having deaf people there,” said Knowles, 61.
That is starting to change, said Bill Gaventa, director of the Summer Institute on Theology and Disability. Acceptance of people with disabilities has grown during the past 15 years as welcoming congregations and people with special needs find each other through the Internet.
“The Internet allows people to hear positive stories: That church is doing something, can’t we do something here?” Gaventa said.
But there are still obstacles. Some older churches are exempt from federal requirements to be handicap accessible, which creates problems for worshippers in wheelchairs.
“If you don’t have a restroom where someone in a wheelchair can go to the bathroom, how can you expect that person to attend?” said Ginny Thornburgh, director of the Interfaith Initiative with the American Association of People with Disabilities.
But the bigger barrier isn’t architecture — it’s attitude, Thornburgh said. It’s not the stairs, it’s the stares. Too often, those with disabilities are regarded as people who are incomplete, broken, defective or inferior.
“Disability theology” is a response to that perspective. Based on Scripture, disability theology contends that those with handicaps are also created by God and given attributes that are no less significant than any other person.
They don’t need fixing, they don’t need healing. What they need is a place in the pews, advocates contend.
“We are created by God and we are his handiwork,” said First Baptist Senior Pastor David Uth. “Our goal is to create a culture where everyone is valued and everyone is honored.”