Disability, Part 3

Brice Laughrey
9 min readJun 10, 2023

This series is inspired by Disability: Living into the Diversity of Christ’s Body by Brian Brock. I’m writing these posts as I read through this book as part of my exploration of disability theology.

Previous Posts

Disability, Part 1
Disability, Part 2

Becoming Disabled

Becoming disabled is a part of life that our society rarely addresses, except, perhaps, to say that someone should consider assisted living or a nursing home. I’ve been doing some work in an independent living retirement community (let’s call it IL, Independent Living), and I’ve watched residents becoming increasingly frustrated with their own bodies and minds as they grow older. Unfortunately, many of them don’t want to have honest conversations about it, because they’re still carrying the baggage of a society that shows them how “terrible” it is to be disabled. That’s not to say there aren’t valid considerations about disability, but we’ve made it unacceptable rather than normal.

It seems to me that it’s exceedingly rare when a person grows old without becoming disabled. Most of us will develop physical ailments that become chronic conditions and restrict joint movement, cause constant pain, or make our bodies unstable or too weak to perform various actions. Many of us will develop mental ailments that affect our memory even to the point of forgetting our loved ones, making it difficult to function on our own, be fully reliable for others, regulate our emotions, or maintain or develop healthy relationships. Even the most active, sharpest members of IL are hunched over, use canes and walkers, have trouble maintaining muscle strength, have worsening eyesight, and/or feel the strain of loneliness because of their limitations.

The thing is, we all recognize the truth of this — that is, when we’re talking about others. When it comes to evaluating ourselves, there seems to be a veil of denial that slows our acceptance of reality. I can’t say for sure why that is; perhaps there are many reasons that are different for everyone, but I’ve noticed some things that I think are contributors. These include:

  • Language, especially through marketing
  • Designs of facilities and spaces
  • Practices and how well they align with our words

I’ve talked about some of these things before, especially the language about ideal human bodies and our imagination of the good life, but today, I want to think about how we design facilities and spaces in a way that reinforces negative ideas about disability.

Show; Don’t Tell.

“Show; don’t tell” is something I’ve heard a lot. I think it’s good advice for helping people align their actions with their words, and it encourages this question when considering disability: what are we showing people about being disabled?

Let’s imagine that our message is one of welcome and inclusion; that’s what we’re saying. But, what does it show people if there’s no ramp out front, only stairs? What does it show if there is a ramp, but it’s at the back or side entrance? What does it show if we say we have wheelchair seating in the main worship space, but that seating is only in the back of the room?

The point is that we often build spaces and expectations around able-bodiedness, so what we show doesn’t match what we say. This can be true even in places that we assume cater to disabled persons, such as IL.

Labeling the community as “independent living” in contrast to “assisted living” encourages people to compare the two. What often ends up happening is a rooting of “independent” versus “assisted” in ideas of “able-bodied” versus “disabled,” respectively. I regularly hear this in the language of the residents. There’s an underlying resentment of sorts for potential residents who appear to be less able-bodied than others. I hear people whispering to each other about how this person or that person really doesn’t belong here; they belong in assisted living. Beginning with the description, the community is set up to encourage shame as people age, but it continues in what’s shown even beyond what’s said.

Lightly Accessible

Lightly accessible is what I’m calling a place that gives the appearance of accessibility to a person who is still centering an able-bodied perspective.

IL is lightly accessible. There are graded slopes for parking lot/sidewalk access and automatic sliding doors at the front entrance. There are rails mounted in the bathroom stalls and along the hallways. There are wall benches in the apartment showers. There’s a small company bus to help transport residents to and from stores and doctor appointments, and there are common rooms on every floor where people can meet for activities or socializing.

All of these things are good, but they only create a lightly accessible environment, because they obscure the broader reality of the facility’s design. Grading the walkways and driveways and putting automatic doors at the front entrance makes the front entrance easily accessible but obscures the fact that almost none of the other entrances/exits have automatic doors. Many of those doors are heavy and difficult to use if you need two hands on a walker or are in a wheelchair or scooter.

The bathroom rails imply accessibility but obscure the fact that none of the bathrooms are actually labeled as handicap restrooms or stalls, and so they aren’t necessarily up to code for accessible restrooms. Similarly, I’ve been told by residents that not all of the shower benches are installed correctly, and not all of the apartment amenities are up to code, but until a person needs those amenities, they often only see the implication of accessibility.

The company bus is great until a person is no longer capable of driving themselves and is forced to rely on the bus entirely. It’s usually then that they internalize that the bus will only take people in a limited radius around the facility. For anyone who’s doctors are outside that radius, the bus is significantly less helpful, which is often the case for folks who have regular visits to specialists.

There are common rooms on each side of the building on each floor, as well as some specialty rooms closer to the middle of the building on each floor, but for folks who have difficulty walking but are not yet using scooters, it can be challenging to walk to a common room that isn’t closest to their apartment. This can make it difficult to socialize with people who aren’t your direct neighbors or living on your side of the building on your floor.

For an able-bodied or mostly able-bodied person, all of these things can be little bonuses of accessibility, but as abilities fade and disabilities emerge, the reality of in accessibility sets in. What this shows us is the assumption and expectation that independent living means essentially able-bodied, and therefore, assisted living means essentially disabled.

Residents who have parts of their identity rooted in their ability to live independently have to contend with the shame of becoming disabled in a community that shows them every day how unwelcome disabled persons are. In many ways, it’s better for them to deny their disabilities than to risk feeling unwelcome after they’ve expressed so much disdain for folks who need assistance.

Accessibility in Churches

Accessibility in churches should have the same considerations as most other contexts. I used IL as a brief case study because, as a larger facility, we can see a broad range of considerations, and while not all of those situations may apply in religious contexts, we ought to practice recognizing as many of them as possible.

For example, most churches don’t have small busses to help people run errands and get to appointments, but we should be aware of the ways a building’s location might create geographical inaccessibility. If there’s a particular community to which we would like to minister, we should consider whether that community is able to reach us and whether we are able to reach them. Are they, for example, working with a company bus that has a limited radius of travel?

I used to worship with a congregation that rented space in a business complex. One of the nice things was that the surrounding businesses were all closed on Sundays, so we didn’t have to compete for parking spaces or worry about bothering anyone, for the most part. However, the closest bus stop was maybe a mile away and across a major intersection. Not a big deal for my dad who has no major disabilities and can rather easily walk a mile and deal with crossing signals. A bigger deal for someone who can’t drive themselves and can’t walk that far. I can’t even remember if the crossing signals had accessibility features.

Sometimes, that situation can’t be avoided. We rented the space that we did because it was affordable for us, and signing longer contracts was part of that, so we could only realistically re-evaluate our location every five years or so. But, what’s important to this conversation is that we rarely gave serious consideration to our location even when our lease was running out. Instead, we expected others to travel to meet us, which automatically rules out many people who can’t travel or who have trouble traveling. Logistically, we were rather inaccessible.

How about entrance ways? We do Sunday morning worship services at IL, and there are two doors at the front of the theater and a set of double doors at the side. All of these doors have push bars for exiting, but all of these doors have turn handles for entering. We tend to close these doors during worship so as not to disturb folks in the lounge next door or in the main walkway who aren’t interested in participating. This creates an obstacle for anyone with a walker or scooter who may be showing up late. The doors open outward, and they’re a bit heavy, so a disabled resident would have to struggle to open the door. This is something we haven’t talked about, yet, but it’s something we definitely should address. If we tell people to come in anytime and then place this cumbersome obstacle in their path, we are showing something different than what we say.

Granted, we didn’t design the space. It’s part of the IL facility, but it’s one of those lightly accessible designs that rarely gets noticed, because the doors are rarely ever closed. We have to work around someone else’s design, but it still needs to be considered.

Many worship spaces are designed without these considerations in mind. When we design spaces for experiential purposes with eye catching aesthetics and ear catching acoustics, we often center able-bodied experiences and offer little in the way of accessibility. We often create lightly accessible spaces by putting in generic features, like a ramp out front for wheelchairs and scooters, but we fail to see the process through by using standard doors that might make it challenging for a person to even enter the building. We might put thick carpets inside and make it hard for wheelchairs or walkers. We might use pews instead of chairs that limit seating options for people with mobility devices. We might create acoustic conditions that interfere with the functions of hearing aids or use lighting configurations then make it difficult for people who are visually impaired.

Don’t get me wrong; I recognize that there are often limitations to what can be provided and considered. We probably can’t accommodate everyone. We rented space in a business complex because it was what we could afford, and we made a few modifications of our own as we could afford to. We weren’t even close to being able to provide a fully accessible worship space for physical disabilities, let alone effective and hospitable accommodations for folks with mental disabilities. I’m not condemning facilities and spaces, religious or otherwise, just because they aren’t accessible to everyone. However, it’s important that we recognize that centering able bodies and how we design our spaces is very much a part of why Americans struggle to age gracefully or to transition from being able-bodied to being disabled.

Becoming or being disabled is challenging enough without compounding those challenges with unwelcoming spaces. This is especially important for spaces where we are actually claiming to be welcoming and hospitable. Private businesses don’t have to make that claim, and many of them don’t, so how much can we really blame them for not being accessible in their building design? Many worship spaces do make that claim, so we ought to hold ourselves accountable for our designs and the way those do or don’t show our claims to be true.

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Originally published at http://breakingbreadtheology.com on June 10, 2023.

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Brice Laughrey

Owner of Breaking Bread Theology and co-founder of 1310 Ministries. Currently living and worshiping in Las Vegas, NV.