Sunday, July 27, 2008

Georgia churches try to be more welcoming to people with disabilities

From the Augusta, Ga., Chronicle July 26:

Too often, churches are slow to embrace people with disabilities, said Wayne McMillan, the president and CEO of The Bobby Dodd Institute in Atlanta. Last month, the nonprofit launched the Interfaith Disability Connection, an online resource center that will hold a statewide summit in August for leaders of religious and disability groups.

Although 84 percent of people with a disability say faith is important to them, less than half attend a religious service at least once a month, Mr. McMillan said. There are many reasons why.

"You would expect communities of faith to be more interested in getting people into their congregations," Mr. McMillan said, but they're often stalled by a lack of money to renovate or, most often, a lack of awareness that anything needs to be done.

Because religious groups are exempt from many of the requirements of the Americans With Disabilities Act, congregations lag behind businesses and government buildings, where accessibility is required.

Still, he said, "It's not just facility modifications. It's about the congregation and the leadership welcoming and embracing people with disabilities."

Most churches with members who are disabled had to make an effort to welcome them, Mr. McMillan said.

That's the way it should be, said Willie Lee Jones, a computer instructor at Walton Options, a disability service organization in Augusta: "The church needs to take the lead."

The 62-year-old Augusta native is an elder at Community Bible Fellowship off Gordon Highway. He was blinded in a car accident in 1974. Four years ago, he traveled to Africa on a mission trip.

"The emphasis was on the blind people in Nigeria. We passed out canes. Some people said they came 400 miles for a cane," he said.

It's proof, he said, that the blind, or anyone with a disability, can contribute to the church.

"We're regular people," Mr. Jones said. "But they're afraid to get close to a person in a wheelchair. They're afraid to look a person in the eyes. People want to put us in the background."