#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.
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.