#EqualAccess Series Guest Post: Listen up! It’s time to listen to disabled members of your congregation.

by Megan McLawsome

This post is part of The Exponent’s #EqualAccess Series. Disabled voices rarely get a chance to speak for themselves, but this blog series seeks to eliminate the stigma that disabled people are less than, and need a representative to speak on their behalf. This blog series is intended to break stereotypes by gathering the voices of disabled individuals. #DisabilityExperience

In the image below, the author stands in a forest and smiles at the camera.

The author stands in a forest and smiles at the camera.

When I was in elementary school I had a device called a FM system that I used to hear my teachers in school. I remember asking my mom if I could use the FM outside of school, like at church. Since the FM was owned by the school, I couldn’t bring it home. But the following weekend was the first and only time I got to use the audio-device provided at church for hard of hearing people.

It was connected directly to the microphone in the chapel so I could better hear what was being said in sacrament meeting. The headphones didn’t fit my head as I was a kid and the device was meant for adults, so I didn’t use it again. 

When I was 17 I had surgeries that improved my hearing, my loss went from severe-moderate to moderate-mild. 

Still, hearing is hard. 

I never participate in Sunday School in my ward, it’s held in the gym which is the best option to include everyone now that there is only one adult Sunday School. But even with the teacher wearing a microphone, the acoustics make it difficult to hear, and I can never hear class members unless they are right next to or behind me. 

Having a hearing loss is only one aspect of my experience as a disabled person. I have roughly 15 diagnosises between disabilities, birth defects, and chronic conditions. These include a hearing loss, cleft lip and palate, vision issues, endometriosis, and mental health issues. These experiences make up my daily life; they are inseparable and cannot be compartmentalized. 

The response from my peers at church and my church community have varied. I was asked to share my story with a leader to be used in a devotional my last year of Girls’ Camp, I agreed. I now regret that decision. I was used as “inspiration porn.” Inspiration porn describes stories of disabled people who “overcome” their disability to live their life normally or do something cool. It uses the experiences of disabled people to benefit abled people, often while speaking over and/or silencing disabled experiences.

That summarizes the generalized response of Latter-day Saint Church members towards disabled people. 

We are held up as inspiration for its members, but our needs and input are often ignored. If a disabled person shares their experience, their real experience, which is often uncomfortable and sometimes even painful, is certainly not inspiring. This dialogue is quickly shut down with primary answers, “read your scriptures more, pray more, have more faith, go to church.” 

This is harmful; it robs disabled people of a voice to be included in the church community, and for those who are louder than uncomfortable pleas of “pray more” are inadvertently shunned from the community. 

The Gospel of Jesus Christ invites all to come unto Christ, and that is what keeps me active. However, the Church as it is on Earth today tells a different story. Many church buildings are not accessible, and they are exempt from following may ADA laws. The temples are also exclusive and inaccessible to many disabled members. There are some token efforts, such as ASL interpreters, or the occasional wheelchair accessible bathrooms, but there is a lot of inconsistency and gaps in filling the needs of disabled members. 

In terms of community, the most important thing Church members and leaders need to do is listen to disabled members. Listen without offering advice, insight, or experience. When a disabled person is struggling, mourn with those that mourn. Ask disabled people what their needs are. Never assume you know their needs or what’s best for them. Lastly, never ever assume you know who is or is not disabled, be an ally to disabled members, even when you don’t think they are around. Encourage others to be inclusive. 

I have hope that with awareness, and with some active efforts to rectify gaps that are exclusive of disabled members, we can come closer to creating a church that resembles Christ’s gospel. 

Bio: Megan McLawsome is a commissioner for the Equal Access Commission and recently graduated with a degree in Public Health. She enjoys playing harp and piano.

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8 Responses

  1. Alisa says:

    Thank you for writing about the disability porn. The trite and “othering” aspects of what people say are so harmful.

  2. Anna says:

    Sunday School in the gymnasium. Just reading that is triggering to me. I have ADD and sensory processing issues. I cannot process the noise when Sunday School lessons are in the gymnasium. It is just noise and clanging metal folding chairs and footsteps walking in and out across the hard floor and toddler noise, and everything echos. I cannot pick out and follow the human voice of the teacher, let alone commenters on the other side of the room. Struggling to pay attention frequently left me with a migraine. I tried to go to the gospel essentials class because it was in a classroom and only a handful of people. I was actually getting something for the class, and able to participate for the first time in years. But after a short time, I was told that the class was ONLY for investigators and those recommended by the bishop and I was forced back into the ruckus of cacophonous sound in the gym, even though I tried to explain that I cannot understand anything in the gym. I need the smaller class size. It didn’t take me long to start going home after sacrament meeting. Why should I waste my time and end up with a migraine if I am not even able to follow the lesson?

  3. Nancy Ross says:

    Thank you for this, Megan. I am/we are as a culture so used to hearing about disability through the lens of inspiration porn that real experiences of difficulty often do not register as real. We must push against those stories and be willing to sit with real experiences of disability.

  4. Anne says:

    Thank you for sharing your experiences. My mother broke her back and has used a wheelchair since before I was born. Attending church in a wheelchair is difficult and people don’t usually understand.

    Thank you for reminding us of ways to be more inclusive.

  5. PJP says:

    I had never heard of “inspiration porn” before, and the concept had not occurred to me. I am really glad you wrote this. I’ve learned a lot from you and what others have had to say. Now that I know better, I will hopefully do better.

  6. Sherrie says:

    Thank you. My son has a hearing loss. He has quit going to church due to the din in sacrament meeting and the noise of the cultural hall. He simply can not hear and has not felt included.
    On the other note as a temple ordinance worker I know our temple (Houston) works very hard at trying to accomodate the needs of all patrons so they can attend, Many times the disabled are afraid to speak up and let others know what they need. ( From experience with family members) We have had people attend who are on gurneys, in wheelchairs, hard of hearing, loss of sight, and other difficulties. Please let the temple know what you need in order to attend. They want you there and will work with you. I’m sorry if this has not been the case for you or someone else. We are not perfect and need to be educated as to the needs of those with disabilities, and no two disabilities are the same.

  7. Amy B says:

    Thank you for writing this. I could not agree more. Church culture and even sermons objectify people with disabilities – literally making them objects able people use to demonstrate righteousness. The same thing happens with the very old as they decline; they are supposed to smile sweetly from their windows while we rake their leaves (with or without their knowledge or consent). Reading this has reminded me once again that I need to find more ways to speak up, propose helpful changes, and be an ally.

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