Up Front and Personal

Treat the Disabled With Equal Dignity

Until I was 15 years old, I never had to think about whether the building I was in had an elevator or escalator. Stairs worked just as well for me. 

Suddenly, that changed whenever I spent time with my mother. Though she always had back problems — she claims her ruptured discs were damaged at 9 years old in a seesaw accident — it never became an all-encompassing factor in her life until her struggles with extreme anemia were compounded, and it became difficult for her to walk. 

Whenever my mother visits me in New York City, she is confronted by the sights of towering skyscrapers and deep, subterranean subway stations, many of them accessible via stairs, which she is often incapable of taking. 

There is a need for facilities that are compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and it should be a right for wheelchair users as well as anyone who may not have a visible disability. 

In a pastoral statement, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said that one of the prominent notes of Jesus’ earthly ministry was concern for people with disabilities. Throughout the New Testament, people with disabilities became witnesses to the healing miracles of Christ. The parish is the door to participation in the faith, it says, and it is the responsibility of the leadership to make sure that door is always open. 

Even my family’s decision on where we will attend Mass is made based on accessibility. We are fortunate, however, that my apartment is within walking distance of a church where climbing only a small flight of stairs is necessary to enter. 

Otherwise, we would need to find an ADA-compliant church. Because they are religious facilities, churches are exempt from laws mandating accessibility. Accessibility on the part of churches is completely by choice, and given the hefty cost of building an elevator in old churches, a vast majority do not have one. 

While she refuses to miss a Sunday Mass, my mother’s weakness and inclination toward dizziness can affect her Mass-attendance experience, if we are not careful. 

When my mother, who lives in Kentucky, wants to visit other churches in New York City, we have to take public transportation. But she’s unable to make the 15-minute walk to the subway station nearest to where I live, so we must take the bus. 

She could get down the stairs at the subway station nearest to where I live, but I would be concerned about how much of a struggle it would be for her to exit that station once we returned, as it is not one of the 27% system-wide that are considered fully accessible. 

Even when they are meant to be accessible, the escalators or elevators in subway stations are often out of service. It can be heartbreaking to look at my mother and wonder how we will be able to leave a station. 

Going upstairs is difficult for her, and beyond that, there are many people who do not shy away from throwing insensitive comments at her for disrupting the bustling flow of urban transit traffic. 

To the churches that are aware of the population of parishioners who need additional accommodations, I say, thank you. To the Christians who decide kindness is more important than insulting a 53-year-old woman who may move more slowly than they do, thank you. 

People who have physical limitations have nothing wrong with them beyond a medical diagnosis, and they should be treated with the human dignity that the Church proclaims they deserve. The way in which those who are different are treated in society is a measurement of that society’s moral vision. 

The need for ADA-compliant facilities never became clear to me until I was 15 years old. Now, there are times when it is all I can think about.

Alicia Venter is a Staff Writer for The Tablet.