I am a Calvin College philosophy professor.
For the past four years I’ve also been a disability advocate in public schools. I go into meetings with parents and teachers to try to ensure that students with disabilities of various kinds receive the kind of education they’re promised by law.
Unfortunately, it’s all too common for schools to do what’s easy rather than what’s required, much less what’s best. In Idaho, where we lived before we moved to Grand Rapids for my position at Calvin, our own son was denied the education he was due for more than a year. And for much of that time, we didn’t even know it. Another student in our city couldn’t take art with her classmates because she couldn’t climb the stairs to the room where that class took place, and there was no elevator to that floor. She did art on the ground floor, by herself, relegated to a second-class status.
Some of my advocacy work also involves making sure that businesses and public spaces are accessible to people with disabilities, as required by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). I’ve noticed, for example, that there are at least two Grand Rapids city parking lots that fail to have accessible parking spaces, despite this being required by the ADA since 1990. And I was heartbroken to learn that churches actively campaigned to be exempt from the requirements of the ADA prior to its passing. As a result, many local congregations still don’t allow people with disabilities to fully participate in the life of the church.
I wrote Disability and Inclusive Communities, a book in the Calvin Shorts series, to help readers understand how to build communities that don’t simply obey the law but that fully include people with disabilities. In order to be inclusive, we have to understand how we often exclude those with disabilities.
The kind of exclusion I have in mind doesn’t have to be intentional. Most of us don’t seek out to keep people with disabilities at a distance. But approximately 20 percent of the U.S. population has a disability. Statistically, one out of every five of you reading this has a disability. Do 20 percent of your friends have disabilities? Do 20 percent of the people who attend your local church have disabilities? This is admittedly a hard question to answer since some disabilities are invisible. We may be friends with people who have disabilities that we don’t know about. Many of my friends don’t know that I have a form of dyslexia. But research shows that people with disabilities, on average, have fewer friends. They have less social capital. They’re significantly less likely to go to church. They are less likely to feel that they’re a valued and valuable member of their communities. I don’t think we seek to make them feel this way. But we often do.
This kind of treatment hurts those we exclude. But it’s also bad for our communities as a whole. Our communities—from our churches to our schools to our workplaces—are worse off when we exclude those with disabilities. We miss out on the opportunity to learn from those who experience life in different ways but who are equally valuable humans. We miss out on becoming the Body of Christ in all its fullness. Our communities become better places for everyone when we pursue policies and practices of inclusion. Our son’s new school is better off because he and other children with
disabilities are not just welcome but fully embraced.
Making our communities inclusive requires us to rethink some of our practices. It requires us to notice ways that we’ve been inhospitable to those with disabilities, even if we haven’t meant to be. Sometimes, the words we use, the pace of our lives, the activities we engage in exclude people—not out of malice, but out of a failure to be thoughtful and proactive.