Disability Studies Quarterly
Summer 2006, Volume 26, No. 3
Copyright 2006 by the Society
for Disability Studies

Faith in Access: Bridging Conversations between Religion and Disability

Robert C. Anderson, Ph.D.
The Center for Religion and Disability
Pelham, Alabama USA
Email: rcanderson@charter.net


Disrupting barriers to access in the religious community may depend upon mutual engagement between the disability and religious communities. A respectful ambivalence between institutional religion and the disability community keeps this conversation at bay. Whether one is religious or not, engagement with the religious community is highly relevant to the disability community. The disability community's influence upon this large network of adherents could make a tremendous impact toward inclusion in society. This article provides an overview for disability scholars and advocates. The context for discussion is inclusion practices in the United States, with which the author is most familiar.

Why engage the religious community?

  1. The religious community is one of the largest networks for inclusion in the United States.

  2. The religious community controls the largest single pool of charitable giving in the private sector.

  3. Seminaries graduate thousands of religious leaders each year with little or no exposure to disability issues. These leaders have tremendous influence over what happens in their congregations and to some extent, public attitudes.

  4. Religious practices have not been historically gracious toward people with disabilities. Perceptions within that history are a deterrent to inclusion, but need not exclude meaningful engagement between religion and disability.

  5. Sustained engagement between the communities of religion and disability can increase the momentum for social change for people with disabilities.

In this article, "engagement" means both constructive and critical conversations. "Bridging" is a connective word that promotes interaction. The author suggests that disability advocates find ways, within their own spheres of interest and influence, to reinforce these connections between religion and disability.

I interweave aspects of law into this essay: it is helpful to understand the interconnections among religion, disability, and public mandates. The principle of separation of church and state explains (in part) why the religious community falls behind the public sector in applying inclusion. The U.S. Constitution's respectful ambivalence toward religion sets the tone for approaching conversations about religion and disability. Its ambivalence is a starting point, not a boundary.


Communities of faith represent one of the largest (and relatively untapped) sources of inclusion for people with disabilities and their families. Yet people with disabilities reflect only 5-7% of membership in religious communities. i By comparison, U.S. population figures revealed that in 2000 about 20% of the population had a disability (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 2003). Considering that people with disabilities have family members and others who care about them, the number we are talking about here is even larger. To extend this point: one person with a disability plus one family member or significant other would equal almost two-fifths (38%) of the population.

To provide some context of the religious community's size and power, consider a few reference points. There are over 350,000 religious congregations in the United States. ii In 2005, these congregations received over $100 billion dollars from adherents (Independent Sector, 2000; Lindner, 2006). Religion is the single largest area of philanthropy, and one in four nonprofits is religious.

Congregations are a vital part of many people's lives, often the most important one, if only for social reasons. They serve all geographic and ethnic communities: Latino, African American, Jewish, Muslim, Ba'hai, Buddhist and others. While ethnic and racial conceptions about disability certainly differ, minority and oppressed groups tend to share concern about social justice issues and exclusion. Yet the experiences and views of people with disabilities have received limited attention within multicultural movements. This lack of concern is noteworthy because people with disabilities are in all these groups. Indeed, people with disabilities represent the world's largest multicultural minority.

Early U.S. immigrants founded congregations before founding their own schools. Not surprisingly, 53% of U.S. congregations organized before World War II (Dudley & Roozen, 2001). Many of these facilities face access challenges for many different types of disabilities. From the large pool of charitable funds each year, there is room for access funding. Indeed, there is record construction spending for renovations and facility upgrades (Engineering News-Record database, 2005) — but not necessarily for access. Congregations are exempt from compliance with most aspects of the ADA. Most new construction must meet local building codes, intermittently requiring access as a pre-requisite for building permits.

Attitudes are a central factor. A Hartford Seminary study found that the average age of a congregation's members shapes its response capacity or 'comfort zone' (Dudley & Roozen, 2001). Congregations with established patterns of interaction are less welcoming to change. These patterns also have an impact on the congregation's openness to diversity.

The majority of congregations are located in residential metropolitan neighborhoods (Independent Sector, 2000). The vast network of congregations and resources is available (in theory if not practice) to promote opportunities in community life and social participation. Some congregations, for example, might provide limited transportation for people in their own communities. Federal Faith-Based Initiatives in the U.S. may prove integral in stimulating the release of these resources to the community at large.

Religion and Disability Una/bridged

Several observations are in order.

First, congregations generally demonstrate openness to improving the condition of their fellow human beings. They also tend to have their own interests and ideas about how to serve society.

Second, the majority of religious adherents are nondisabled. Congregations often need leadership on how they might proceed in becoming proactive about disability issues.

Third, when it comes to disability, congregations are like the general public because they are the general public. The history of organized religion reflects the biases of broader culture. Congregations both influence and are influenced by that culture. This symbiotic relationship is perhaps why congregations are slower, but often more pervasive, change agents in the long term.

Further, institutional religion's history is marred with layers of cultural sediment. For example, Brenda Brueggemann (2001) described the Deaf community's debate over the Augustinian interpretation of the Apostle Paul's statement that faith comes by hearing. In his Answer to Julian, St. Augustine of Hippo commented:

Tell me, then, because of what wrong are such innocents sometimes born blind and others sometimes deaf? This defect is even a hindrance to faith itself, as the apostle bears witness, when he says, Faith comes from hearing [Romans 10:17].... for they cannot hear the Word, and they Cannot [sic] read the Word.... Or are any of you so feebleminded that you do not regard feeblemindedness as an evil.... Is there anyone who does not know that those whom the common people call morons are born so mentally feeble that one can hardly credit certain of them with the mental capacity of animals? (ca. 421-430 A.D., Works of Saint Augustine, I/24, p. 344, ed. Hill & Rotelle)

Brueggemann's spotlight on this debate illustrates the distance between religion and people with disabilities across the ages. Woodward (1982) noted that Augustine's comments have at times been a source of heated debate in the Deaf community.iii Certainly, one is hard pressed today to find mainstream religions that regard Deaf people (and others with disabilities) as fundamentally evil. However, the history of religious stigmas across the ages casts a long shadow in cultural memory. Consider the images that still reside in portrayals of mental illness as demon possession (e.g.,The Exorcist). There are also reverse associations that cast disability as the martyr-like shouldering of burdens: for example, parents are sometimes told that "God must think highly of you, to entrust a child with a disability to your family."

Showing the people in faith communities what needs to be done, and helping them take action, may prove a means for changing religious practices or theologies that exclude people with disabilities. Relationships sometimes do what theology can't.

I. Without Recourse of Law

The religious community lags behind the public sector largely because 'respectful ambivalence' has restricted engagement among religion, law, and people with disabilities. This membrane exists by U.S. Constitutional mandate: the separation of church and state. The boundary has proven more semi-permeable than solid. The U.S. Supreme Court has consistently interpreted this principle as freedom of religion, not just freedom from religion. This dictum also relies upon a central value of the disability community: accommodation.

The Constitution does not require complete separation of church and state; it affirmatively mandates accommodation, not merely tolerance, of all religions, and forbids hostility toward any. Anything less would require a "callous indifference" (Zorach v. Clauson, 343 U.S. 306, 1952 at 314) that was never intended by the Establishment Clause. Chief Justice Warren Burger, Lynch v. Donnelly, 1984).iv

Many people with disabilities wish to participate in faith communities but face greater barriers than in the public sector. Over the past three decades, our society has grappled with legislation aimed to improve civil rights for people with disabilities. On balance, these laws are enforceable within the public domain. A number of private institutions are not directly mandated through these laws. An even wider number of religious entities are exempt de facto. These exclusions arise from the U.S. Constitution's interest to maintain neutrality in the religious domain: Article One neither favors nor disfavors religion. The Establishment Clause sets the critical boundary preventing governmental intrusion into matters of religious concern.v

People with disabilities thus face exclusion from celebrating the rights and obligations of their faith without recourse of law.

While neutral toward religion, the Courts have often noted the important role that religion fills in society. The separation of church and state poses a unique challenge for achieving in the religious sector what the government has sought for decades in the public sector: the social advancement of rights for people with disabilities.

In 1992, Supreme Court Justice Blackmun noted religion's kinship to American law and public society (Lee v. Weisman, 1992).

A relentless and all-pervasive attempt to exclude religion from every aspect of public life could become inconsistent with the Constitution" [Justices Stevens and O'Conner concurring].vi

Likewise, people with disabilities may say the converse to communities of faith. Excluding people with disabilities from congregational life is inconsistent with higher powers of law and faith. This is the basis for conversations about religion and disability.

Hold on — the religious community isn't entirely exempt from disability law.

Certain provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) may indeed apply to the religious community. Religious organizations should determine their responsibility to comply. For example, any religious entity with 15 or more employees is required to comply with Title I requirements. Non-clergy staff members are covered by Title I. However, ordained clergy are generally not covered by this statute.

Nor are religious institutions specifically exempted from Title III (accommodations and services). If the religious organization receives state or federal funding for any purpose, it is subject to Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.vii Examples include funds received for Faith-Based Initiatives; daycare centers; soup kitchens; student education; homeless shelters and other types of social service; counseling centers; or project grants. For example, Ireland v. Kansas District of the Wesleyan Church (1984) applied Section 504 to a church-operated day care center receiving federal funds for food.viii Burriola v. Greater Toledo YMCA (2001) applied Section 504 to a local YMCA operating a daycare facility at Calvary United Methodist Church. The daycare excluded a child with autism whose behavior they deemed "inappropriate" and "a threat" to the other children. ix

Further, Section 504 applies even if the federal funding is received indirectly. For example, some congregations set up separate nonprofits to run community services such as hospitals or soup kitchens. If a religious organization re-allocates federal funding toward its related nonprofit, the religious organization is still "a recipient of federal funds" under § 504 (Dupre v. The Roman Catholic School of the Diocese of Houma-Thibodeaux, 1999).x Upon receipt of federal funding, the recipient must comply with Section 504 across all of its programs and services — not just the single program receiving the funds.

II. Religious Higher Education

Some cases have tested religious higher education. In White v. Denver Seminary (2001),xi the court determined that a seminary's public claim that it observed the ADA did not preclude the seminary from claiming its statutory exemption from Title III of the ADA. White, a seminary student with multiple disabilities, sued the school for failure to provide ADA accommodations as promised in its published handbook. However, religious schools may be liable for breach of contract in these situations. Academic catalogs are a contract between students or faculty and the school.

The importance of the contractual relationship between students, faculty and schools has firm precedent. Since 1819, the U.S. Supreme Court has recognized the contract relationship in both public and private institutions.xii Academic requirements that are written in a school's catalogs may be enforced as contractual if the student pays the fees listed and meets the stated academic requirements. The courts can enforce this element of contract law, since students are de facto entering an adhesion contract, whether they realize it or not, in the matriculation process. Academic catalogs must specifically state that requirements are subject to change at any time, and show written regulations elsewhere. Otherwise, the academic catalogs are considered an enforceable contract (Easley v. University of Michigan Board of Regents, 1986).xiii

Contracts involve the fulfillment of specified requirements and the exchange of consideration (such as money). Since White, some religious universities are aware of these precedents and have begun including explicit statements that their catalogs are not legal contracts.xiv Situations related to faculty with disabilities have also been recently tested in the courts.xv

Benchmark ruling on campus-wide access requirements.

The religious affiliation often complicates cases since governance issues are connected to their denominational relationships (Justesen, 2001). This distinction is different than applies to secular private colleges and universities. Another case shows how disability issues interact with the interests of religiously affiliated colleges and universities.

In 2000, Duke University reached agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice to make campus-wide accessibility improvements to its campus (Justesen, 2001). Duke is a well endowed, religiously-affiliated school with extensive financial and other resources at its disposal. The complaint, filed by a student who had graduated from Duke in 1997, listed numerous buildings and activities that were not accessible. This was the first time that an agreement for campus-wide access had been reached. Duke University's 2000 settlement agreement introduced the concept of 'visitability,' a practice that (if implemented) "allows people in wheelchairs to visit the rooms of their friends without disabilities" (Hebel, 2000, p. A34). Visitability expanded the concept of accessibility: people with disabilities should be able to visit the rooms of their friends who do not have disabilities.

With the large number of religious entities now receiving federal funding through President Bush's Faith-Based Initiatives, there are now legal grounds for ADA and Section 504 cases to be further tested.

III. Graduate Theological Education: A Critical Area for Disability Advocacy

A survey of 244 member seminaries of the Association of Theological Schools in the U.S. and Canada captured a bleak state of affairs at mainline seminaries. The 2001 Survey of Theological Education and People with Disabilities revealed very little activity toward access, whether through curriculum, programs, or physical plant (Anderson & Blair, 2003). Most deans, however, (92%) cited their belief that access was an important issue that needs to be addressed.

Theological education equips thousands of clergy each year to lead congregations. Increased advocacy directed toward graduate theological education could make a systemic impact. By including educational content about disability inside their curricula, these schools could impact future generations of religious leaders and millions of people in their congregations. These religious adherents filter throughout society. Imagine the possibilities if congregations educated their members about disability. There are certainly pockets of stellar activity, yet there seems to be a lack of critical mass.

Helping seminaries understand access. The phrase 'practical access' clarifies how subtle realities shape a school's responsiveness or capacity to include people with disabilities (Anderson, 2003). For example, a ramp provides physical access to a building. It also creates the context where people enter and form relationships with other students. Doe (2003) described how context influences the school's curriculum over time — whether through content or practical access. The baseline proposed for seminaries is curriculum infusion: interweaving knowledge about the experience of disability throughout the existing curriculum. Lott (2001) credits her disability as generating a channel for dialogue and positive change in classroom norms. Lott draws out the critical element for transforming change within educational spaces: the relationships that occur among people. When people with disabilities interact with others in educational settings, a transformation of environment, culture, and curriculum is more likely to occur (Gabel, 2005).

Disability advocates may advance this transformation by engaging in conversations with religious scholars, administrators, and others within your network about these issues.

IV. Critical Mass?

The momentum for change will likely need to come from the public sector (so-called secular society) for change to reach that critical mass inside the religious community. This observation recognizes that congregations are not a disconnected subset of culture. They are comprised of people, who are the general public. Society still treats ableism as though it were a property interest. This is a concern for all of us in the disability community.

Critical mass may come in the form of the baby boomers, a force of 79 million people who enter retirement en masse by 2010. They will carry a very big club. They will demand access. They will get it or the religious community will receive a possibly fatal blow. Imagine the largest demographic of society who, unable to access places of worship, begin gradually withholding their donations and volunteerism.

When religious adherents embrace a social or political cause, they tend to bring those issues to every sphere of their lives: work, education, politics, community life (Dudley & Roozen, 2001; Independent Sector, 2000). However, engagement with disability issues in the religious community has not yet reached critical mass. We need to help foster this dialogue.

Bridging Disability and Religion

Conversations between the religious and disability communities often derail on matters about theology. Religious portrayals of people with disabilities have sometimes been stigmatizing. That is, disability has at times been connected to sin, unworthiness, or exclusion from community living (e.g., "lepers"). Nor has disability been a coherent and studied concept within the history of theological inquiry.

However, there is a need for conversations to take place — between people of faith and all who have faith in the power of access. There is more common ground than might be imagined.

The religious community has no legal mandate to respond to certain disability legislation. Yet the religious sector should explore its own moral mandates that compel action based on faith, justice, and respect.

The disability community may likewise further its own interests for social justice by engaging the religious community. Suggestions for further action are described below.

  1. Designate "Religion and Disability" as an overall conference theme for an annual conference meeting.

  2. Include topical sessions about religion and disability at other annual meetings.

  3. Form strategic partnerships with organizations such as the American Association on Mental Retardation's (AAMR) Religion & Spirituality Division.xvi

  4. Encourage members throughout the disability community to include the religious community in their advocacy and research efforts.

  5. Publish a position paper on engaging the religious community about disability issues. Provide a copy to organizational members and other disability organizations.


The disability community will discover many colleagues who are already engaging in this kind of "bridging." Most 'religion and disability' advocates consider themselves a part of the disability community. Some may recall the career of Dr. Harold Wilke, regarded by many as the pioneer for religion and disability since 1945. Groups such as the National Organization on Disability have made major contributions toward this goal. There are now a number of scholars, advocates, and organizations engaged in this work as well.

To learn more, several resources are noted here for you to examine. Clicking on each URL will direct you to the resource. The new 2005 Dimensions of Faith resource directory is a 179-page comprehensive bibliography of information about religion and disability. (Published by the Elizabeth Boggs Center on Developmental Disabilities).

You may also wish to look over the Journal of Religion, Disability, & Health (Haworth Press). At this URL, you may view a free online sample or request one by mail.

Of particular interest is the National Organization on Disability's Seminary Project. This project helps educate seminaries how to welcome faculty, staff, students and visitors with disabilities. Its central goal is to help these schools better equip future religious leaders to serve, and serve with, children and adults with disabilities. A number of organizations have interests in these areas, among them, The Center for Religion and Disability and the Boggs Center (noted above).


Anderson, R. C. (Ed.). (2003). Graduate theological education and the human experience of disability. New York: The Haworth Press.

Anderson, R. C. & Blair, W. D. (2003). Survey of Theological Education and People with Disabilities. Birmingham, Alabama: The Center for Religion and Disability, Inc.

Brueggemann, B. J. (2001). Deafness, literacy, rhetoric: Legacies of language and communication. In J.C. Wilson & C. Lewiecki-Wilson (Eds.), Embodied rhetorics: Disability in language and culture (pp. 115-134). Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.

Doe, T. (2003). Studying disability: Connecting people, programs and policies. Victoria, British Columbia, Canada: Island Blue Press.

Dudley, C. S. & Roozen, D. A. (2001). Faith communities today: A report on religion in the United States. Hartford, Connecticut: Hartford Institute for Religion Research, Hartford Seminary.

Duin, J. (2001). Giving in different denominations. The Philanthropy Roundtable, May/June. Retrieved February 7, 2006, from:

Gabel, S. (Ed.). (2005). Disability studies in education: Readings in theory and method. New York: Peter Lang Publishers.

Hebel, S. (2000, March 3). Duke reaches settlement with Justice Department on access for people with disabilities. The Chronicle of Higher Education, 46(26), p. A34.

Hill, E. & Rotelle, J. E. (Eds.) (1998). Answer to the Pelagians II: Answer to Julian, III, 4/10, Part I: 'Books'. In The works of Saint Augustine: A translation for the 21st century (Volume 24, p. 344; Roland J. Teske, Trans.). (American Heritage Institute Series). Hyde Park, New York: New City Press.

Independent Sector. (2000, November). America's religious congregations: Measuring their contributions to society. Washington, DC: Author.

Justesen, T. (2001). Disability, higher education, and public policy: The challenge of implementing federal policy in private colleges and universities. Dissertation Abstracts International, 63(01), 109. (UMI No. 3038969)

Lindner, E. W. (Ed.). (2006). Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches. New York: National Council of Churches.

Lott, D. E. (2001). Going to class with (going to clash with?) the disabled person: Educators, students, and their spoken and unspoken negotiations. In J. C. Wilson & C. Lewiecki-Jones (Eds.), Embodied rhetorics: Disability in language and culture (pp. 135-153). Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.

Miles, A. S. (2001). College Law (3rd ed.). Tuscaloosa, Alabama: Sevgo Press.

U.S. Bureau of the Census (2003) Disability Status: 2000, accessed June 30, 2006, at www.census.gov/prod/2003pubs/c2kbr-17.pdfPress.

Woodward, J. (ed.) (1982) How you gonna get to heaven if you can't talk to Jesus? On depathologizing deafness. Silver Spring, MD: Terrance J. Publishers, Inc.


i Data on religious participation and people with disabilities extrapolated from Glenmary National Research Center (2000) and U.S. Bureau of the Census databases.
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ii In this article, congregation refers to churches, synagogues, mosques, temples, assemblies, and other organized places of worship.
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iii For a broader discussion of how the deaf community has struggled with St. Augustine's words on the Deaf and faith, see Winzer (1993; 1997); Brenda Brueggemann (2001); and Woodward (1982).
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iv Lynch v. Donnelly, 465 U.S. 668 (1984), 672-673. BURGER, C. J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which WHITE, POWELL, REHNQUIST, and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined. O'CONNOR, J., filed a concurring opinion, post, p. 687. BRENNAN, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which MARSHALL, BLACKMUN, and STEVENS, JJ., joined, post, p. 694. BLACKMUN, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which STEVENS, J., joined, post, p. 726.
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v U.S. Constitution, Amendment I states, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."
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vivi Lee v. Weisman, 505 U.S. 577 (1992), 597-598, JUSTICE BLACKMUN delivering the Court's opinion, with Justice Stevens and Justice O'Conner concurring.
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vii Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Public Law 93-112); 29 U.S.C.A. § 794(b)(3)(A), 1999.
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viii Ireland v. Kansas Dist. of the Wesleyan Church, 1994 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 11367, No. 94-4077-DES (D. Kan. July 1, 1994) -- applying Section 504 to a church-operated day care center receiving federal funds for food.
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ix Burriola v. Greater Toledo YMCA (2001), U.S. Dist. LEXIS 2497 (Case No. 3: 00CV7593, N.D. Ohio Mar. 5, 2001) -- rejecting argument that a child with a disability who exhibited aggressive behavior at a day care program was a direct threat when procedures to reduce his aggression were not implemented and evidence suggested that they would have decreased his aggression.
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x Dupre v. The Roman Catholic School of the Diocese of Houma-Thibodeaux, 31 IDELR 129 (U.S.D.C. E.D.La. 9/2/1999). See also Hunt v. St. Peter's School, 963 F.Supp. 843 (W.D. Mo. 1997).
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xi White v. Denver Seminary, 157 F.Supp. 2d 1171 (2001).
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xii Miles (2001), p. 77. See also Trustees of Dartmouth College v. Woodward, 17 U.S. (4 Wheaton) 518 (1819).
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xiii Easley v. University of Michigan Board of Regents, 627 F.Supp. 580 (E.D.Mich. 1986).
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xiv See, for example, the academic catalog published by Williams Baptist College, 2003-2005, p. 44: "The curriculum, policies, and procedures of the College are under continuing evaluation and review, and a given catalog does not constitute a contract with the student."
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xv For cases involving faculty members with disabilities, see: Haas v. Board of Trustees of Community College District No. 508, DBA City Colleges of Chicago, Case No. 03-1152 ((U.S. District Court, N. District III of Illinois, 2003); Meling v. St. Francis College, 3 F. Supp. 2d 267 (E.D.N.Y. 1998), WL 106868 (1997); Nedder v. Rivier College (Nedder I), 908 F. Supp. 66 (D.N.H 1995); Nedder v. Rivier College (Nedder II), 944 F. Supp. 111 (D.N.H. 1996); Carter v. Lurleen B. Wallace Junior College, 173 F. Supp. 2d 1204, 1210 (M.D. Ala. 2001); Esfahani v. Medical College of Pennsylvania, 919 F. Supp. 832 (E.D. Pa. 1996); Kacher v. Houston Community College System, 974 F. Supp. 615 (S.D. Tex. 1997); Majeske v. Congress of Connecticut Community Colleges, No. 98-7226, 1998 WL 907915 (2d Cir. Dec. 23, 1998); Peterson v. Suffolk University, No. 94-12471 (DC Mass. December 14, 1994); Wood v. President and Trustees of Spring Hill College in the City of Mobile, 978 F.2d 1214 (11th Cir. 1992).
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xvi AAMR's Religion & Spirituality Division may be contacted through: http://www.aamr.org/Groups/div/RG/.
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