Religious leaders have previously been at the forefront of civil rights in America, and can do much more to help people with disabilities ‘learn how to fish for themselves’. Faith leaders can help recruit private sector and other employers in their congregations to offer unpaid internships and entry-level jobs to congregants with disabilities so they can get their foot in the door toward independence. Retired members of congregations can be recruited and trained to be volunteer “job coaches” who can help teens and young adults with disabilities get and maintain their first internships and jobs.
Still, in the faith community we need to walk before we can run. Americans with disabilities have as much of a right to freedom of religion as their fellow citizens. Sadly, however, in stark contrast to their religious precepts, many religious organizations still discriminate against Americans with disabilities. Some do so knowingly, and some out of ignorance. Regardless, this discrimination robs people with disabilities of their religious faith, culture and community. Freedom of religion is a core American value and a part of what makes us a great nation.
Many Americans believe that every person (including individuals with disabilities) is made in God’s image. Moreover, in the Biblical traditions, a society’s righteousness is often measured by how it treats those on the margins. Numerous leaders in the Biblical traditions had a disability or other limitation of one form or another, e.g. Moses had a speech impediment (some think stuttering); Isaac was blind; Jacob limped, etc. Much can be done through the power of the pulpit and faith-based organizations to end discrimination and replace it with inclusion, dignity and equal rights.
Faith-based groups can do much by “walking the walk” on inclusion, not just “talking the talk.” Important work on this front already been accomplished by a number of religious leaders, including Ginny Thornburgh at the AAPD, visionary Rev. Bill William Gaventa and Professor Eric Carter at Vanderbilt University. However, the gaps are monumental as it is legal in America for religious institutions that do not get federal funding to discriminate against people with disabilities because they are explicitly exempted from the ADA. To remedy this, laws do not need to be changed as faith-based groups can learn how easy and inexpensive it can be to include people with disabilities. They do, however, need to learn the moral costs of shutting out those who have disabilities from religious freedoms.