Sunday, August 19, 2007

This is a sermon written and given by me at Pilgrim United Church of Christ in Carlsbad, CA, on Accessibility Sunday.


From the Bible stories I’ve heard about Jesus seeking the company of prostitutes, tax collectors, and people with leprosy, I have always seen Jesus as an inclusive type of guy. He was not here to feast, drink and reside with the elite or, in other words, the people who “have.” Jesus was here for the “have nots.” He brought goodness and kindness to people who had none in hopes that they would share it with others. Jesus stressed we are all children of God and deserving the love of God and the love of each other. This teaching has not readily been accepted by humanity. There has always been groups of people who have felt more worthy than other groups of people. As a results, we have seen the groups in the last century rise up in an attempt to be recognized and counted. Women of the 20’s fought for the right to vote and then later in the century for equality. In the 60’s the African Americans fought for civil rights—rights for equal access of education, housing, jobs as well as the simple things like restrooms and water fountains. With the Stonewall riots in 1969, homosexuals began to break down the closet doors they were forced to hide behind. Amid all these groups emerged another group known as the “disabled.” Today the politically correct term is “people with disabilities.”

It is hard to imagine a group of people considered less worthy than women, African Americans, and homosexuals, but if there were such a group, I would say it would be people with disabilities. In the good old days, when a baby was born with a deformity to the Spartans, the child was considered unfit for battle and taken to the top of a mountain and left to die. Then we humans became more civilized and up to the late 1900’s we put deformed babies in mental institutions. Babies born with disabilities, such as myself were abandoned in institutions to live a mere existence. When they died, there bodies were donated to research labs, buried in mass graves, or buried with a number as a headstone in institutional cemeteries. Later, in the late 1900’s, even the number stones were removed. If people with disabilities were not left in institutions, they were often hidden away within the family home. Sight unseen—people with disabilities simply were nonexistent in society. As a young child, my mother dragged me everywhere she went, but I noticed I was the only person with a disability where ever I went. I never saw adults with disabilities. Since many of my school friends died due to their disabilities, I come to believe children with disabilities never made it to adulthood. It wasn’t until I tried to find an university to go to that I began to realize that the community in general and universities specifically were not open to people with disabilities. We were a society of curbs, steps, and narrow doorways.

The first four years, ’68-’72, I went to college and I took one or two courses a quarter at a university that had no services for people with disabilities. No disabled parking places. No ramps. No one to help me carry books to class. No one to help me take notes. No special testing arrangements. It was a case of do or die. Most of the times I thought I would die. I walked then, but my walk was not real functional. After about 20 steps I would have to sit and rest 20 minutes to walk another 20 steps. In an effort to park close to buildings where my classes were, I had to park in crosswalks and fire zones where I received parking tickets. In four years, I earned 40 credit hours. Then my sister informed me that Kent State University developed disabled student services. Needless to say, I transferred.

When I went to Kent State, I thought I had died and went to heaven. I was able to use a wheelchair on campus due to wide doors and ramps. I could have a note taker and extended testing times. I had door to door service to classes—a great service, especially in winter. I was able to take a full load of classes and graduated in three years.

But in ’75 Kent State was an utopia for people with disabilities. Unfortunately, communities had not progressed at all. Restaurants, theaters, libraries, stores, and public buildings in general were not accessible to anyone with a disability. There were no curb cuts and no accessible public transportation. I once went to job interview. At the time, I was using a manual wheelchair and, as I entered the building, I was faced with 25 steps and no elevator. Again, needless to say, I did not get the job.

On October 20,1979, the Disabled Peoples’ Civil Rights Rally Day was held in Washington, D.C. But it wasn’t until 11 years later, on July 26, 1990, that the Americans with Disability Act, a federal law was passed and signed. It was a major breakthrough for people with disabilities in establishing meaningful, productive lives in the community. Its purpose is to end discrimination, reduce barriers to employment, and ensure people with disabilities access to education, communication, transportation, public buildings, housing, and the community. To put it another way, it took 1,990 years and a federal law to give people in wheelchairs the right to go the bathroom while participating in the community. Boggles the mind, doesn’t it? It took federal legislation to provide facilities to answer a very basic human need. Now I know the real reason why I never saw others with disabilities in the community as I was growing up.

Have things improved since 1990? Yes, of course. You can hardly drive through any town without seeing one or more people with disabilities walking down the street. Curb cuts, ramps, and accessible public transportation has made it possible for them to navigate and live independently in the community. Fewer people are forced to do production work in sheltered workshops for $0.10 an hour and more have real jobs and take home real paychecks. Buses, trolleys, and trains are now equipped with lifts or ramps. Public buildings and businesses are usually equipped with disabled parking and wheelchair accessible bathrooms. Does it mean we no longer need to advocate for accessibility? No, not by a long shot.

There are still many places that are not accessible. I have been half way across a busy street only to discover there was no curb cuts on the other side. When I have attended meetings at country clubs or places of worship, I have found them inaccessible because they are exempt from the ADA. Last year I attended a meeting for people with disabilities in a building in Old Town and found there were no wheelchair accessible bathrooms. On my trip to Ukiah, I purchased a disabled passenger bus ticket and was sent a bus with a broken lift, which was broken for over a week. Even as accommodating as Pilgrim is, I have never been able to participate in a dinner group for I fear the inaccessibility of some people’s home.

It is important to remember that accessible accommodations don’t necessarily mean thousands of dollars in structural change. Sometimes it is just a matter of thoughtfulness. To resist the temptation to park in a parking space designated for the disabled drive “just for a second.” Or using the only disabled bathroom stall when there are 10 other open stalls. A few weeks ago I helped Harry fold bulletins for Sunday service. After folding the standard bulletin that most of you are holding, we folded some large print bulletins. It wasn’t until Sunday service that I realized something was missing from the large print bulletin. If a person was unable to read the print in the standard bulletin the person would be unable to read the print in the hymnal. So I went to Madison and suggested we copy and enlarge the selected hymns as well. Well, in case anyone is wondering, you are all witnesses to exactly where that suggestion got me!

So whose responsibility is it to advocate and provide accessible accommodations? Some believe it is those who benefit from having the accommodation. OK, let’s look at who benefits. Children benefit from lower counters, pay phones, and light switches. And how would they slateboard across the street without curb cuts. Parents with small children, especially in strollers, benefit from curb cuts, ramps, elevators, and large accessible bathroom stalls. People who have operations or break a leg and have to use crutches or a wheelchair. And one thing we are all going to do is grow old and it is nice to have those grab bars when the legs and balance aren’t what they used to be. So whose responsibility is it to advocate and provide accessible accommodations? Everyone’s! Even though you may never need the accommodation, chances are someone you love will. When I go into schools to teach young students about disabilities and the people who have them, I point out the obvious barriers such as narrow doorways and stairs, but I tell them the biggest barrier to people with disabilities are other peoples attitudes—how they feel and think about people with disabilities. “Attitude” is the key that open the door to community accessibility. When people with disabilities are accepted as worthy, contributing partners of the community, there will be no need for a federal law mandating accessibility. The ADA building codes will become “standard” building codes and every building—including country clubs, places of worship, and private homes—will be built to be accessible to all.

Until that day comes, it is going to be one modification at a time. Jesus said that when you acknowledge and answer the need of a stranger you have acknowledged and answered his need as well. He could not do all the work himself and neither can the sole members of the disabled community. So pick up the hammer and jar of nails and let’s start building access. What’s that? You say your not good with hammer and nails? No problem. As long as you can speak, you can be God’s voice instead of God’s hands. You can spread the word on the importance of accessibility and who it benefits by telling your colleagues, friends, neighbors, family, and service groups. Justin Dart, the most renown advocate for people with disabilities, once said:

The notion that any one person is the single cause of any significant social change-that Abraham Lincoln alone freed the slaves-is a devastating stereotype which robs individuals of responsibility and credit, and actually inhibits social change. You can be a revolution of one. In your living room, in your family, in your community.
Justin Dart, 1998

So bring whatever God given talents you have to the table, join the team, and together, you and I, will build an inclusive community for all.

Linda Thompson


Troy Wittren said...

Very nice sermon, Linda. I and my wife have cerebral palsy. Seems like other minorities garner most of the attention. I am always amazed at how "minority" and those of us with disabilities are considered so differently.

I always get the sense that "minorities" get sympathy and breaks, but that we who are "disabled" - well, it's a sad thing, and society is trying to reduce the barriers, but only so much can be done.

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Assistive technology said...

Thank you. This was wonderful. The reality of it makes it kind of sad, but such is life. Live and learn (while teaching).