Why are advocates needed?
People with disabilities and their families often experience obstacles to participating in congregational life that might not be obvious to the casual observer. They may be reluctant to call attention to themselves or ask for what they may perceive as special favors. The disability may even be a source of embarrassment or shame. In any case, people living with the daily realities of a disability may grow weary of speaking up for accommodations that will enable them to participate fully in community life.
Many causes and concerns compete for the attention of contemporary church congregations. any causes and concerns compete for the attention of contemporary church congregations. As a result, the supports that enable people with disabilities to participate more fully in congregational life can be overlooked, especially if no one is asked to specifically think about them.
Disability issues cut across every aspect of congregational life and can be difficult to assign neatly to an existing commission or committee. Even if one aspect of disability participation receives attention, others may be neglected.
Accessibility Advocates blessed by their congregation benefit the entire faith community by assuring that the voices of persons with disabilities and their unique perspectives are heard in congregational conversations.
The body of Christ is incomplete without the full participation of people with disabilities. Indeed, Jesus suggested that restoring people with disabilities to a saving faith community was a sign for recognizing the presence of the Messiah: "Go and tell...what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them" (Matthew 11:4-5).
Commissioning an advocate
A Congregational Accessibility Advocate will be most effective when the congregation blesses a particular person (or group) for the role and assigns a place of accountability and support within the unique structure of a congregation. Depending on the congregation, this might mean:
- Designating a pastoral staff person or elder and adding advocacy to the job description
- Appointing a lay Accessibility Advocate who advises and reports to the pastor or elder group
- Designating someone from an existing commission or committee to advocate broadly for disability concerns
- Commissioning a small group or task force to lead the congregation in accessibility advocacy
- Linking accessibility advocacy to an existing role such as mutual aid advocate, deacon, or Stephen minister
An effective advocate will be someone who cares about inclusion of people with disabilities. Be cautious about assuming that a person with a disability or their family member is the logical choice. Those most affected by disability may well need others to speak up on their behalf. Self-advocacy is possible, but will be most effective when given significant support and empowerment. Without such support, appointing a person with a disability or their family member as advocate could add to the individual’s burden.
Commissioning the advocate in the context of worship or another public setting invites others to support the advocate through prayer and action. Blessing an advocate may be the beginning of a journey of growth and ministry for this individual that comes from having one’s unique gifts, insights, and perspectives recognized (see story below).
ADN can help
When a congregation informs ADN about its Accessibility Advocate, the advocate does not have to go it alone, but has access to ADN’s abundant resources. A good place to start is with a Disability Audit.
Your congregation can bless others in turn when your Accessibility Advocate shares with ADN what you are learning about including people with disabilities.