Paul Leichty is the director of the Congregational Disability Network. He was one of the founders of Anabaptist Disabilities Network and served as its executive director from 2004 to 2011.
Persons with disabilities, their family members, and their advocates tend to have one of two immediate but opposite reactions:
- “Of course we welcome all persons!” We would like to believe that our congregations are indeed welcoming.
- “No, this and this and this is wrong, inadequate, or unhelpful.” We have a litany of complaints around accessibility and inclusion.
But the question looms: “How do we know?”
How do we really know how well our congregation is doing?
- We may follow all of the accessibility guidelines we can find. e may follow all of the accessibility guidelines we can find.
- We may congratulate ourselves on a class for adults with developmental disabilities or for incorporating a child with autism into activities with his peers.
- We may have the latest in assistive listening devices in our worship space.
But does all of this mean that we are actually more welcoming?
CAN exists to help congregations to take this question seriously. It’s not about following rigid rules. It is a journey. So we celebrate the good things that are happening. We welcome the new accessibility features. We rejoice when more people are included in our congregational worship, service, and social activities.
But the journey means that we are also aware of the persons who are excluded. We are sensitive to those on the margins. We take time to hear and understand the concerns of those who don't feel like they belong.
The vision of CAN is to assist congregations on that journey. How?
- By providing assessment tools, both objective (Congregational Assessment Survey) and subjective (Individual and Family Needs Questionnaire).
- By connecting congregations to resources and best practices needed to address specific issues, both within their own faith traditions as well as learning from others.
- By providing a forum for networking and dialogue with others on the journey.
Although CAN is an independent interfaith international movement, it benefits from the emphasis on community inherited from its Anabaptist roots. Those roots go back…
- Those roots go back to the days when Mennonite disabilities advocacy efforts under Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) built partnerships with other denominations through the Committee on Disabilities of the National Council of Churches (NCC).
- Those roots go back to advocacy efforts under Mennonite Mutual Aid (now Everence) to encourage congregations in looking at the “ABCs of Access.”
- Those roots go back to the denominational directory of the Church of the Brethren which lists accessibility features in five different categories.
- Those roots go back to the 2007 establishment of CAN under ADN where it remained until spun off on its own in 2011.
- Those roots go back to major funding from the Anabaptist community and its institutions.
- Those roots go back to the gracious cooperation of Mennonite.net, not only with the technical aspects of web hosting, but also in providing a temporary haven while CAN pursued tax exempt status in 2011.
Certainly, it takes a community to undergird a project and build a movement like CAN. The efforts of that community are now at your fingertips at www.canaccess.org. The re-launch of CAN in April 2016 with a completely redesigned website gives Anabaptist congregations and other faith communities the opportunity to pioneer once again by using the tools provided to encourage us to extend a welcome all God’s people, regardless of abilities. May it be so!
Paul D. Leichty
Director, Congregational Accessibility Network
Congregational Accessibility Network (CAN)
1406 S. 14th St.
Goshen, IN 46526-4544