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An essay donated by Tina Heron

"You canít be disabled & Christian, unless you
surrender to Discrimination & Victimization"

A personal experience

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I became a wheelchair user 14 years ago. I have a congenital condition called Spastic Diplegia it is part of the cerebral palsy group of conditions and its affect on me means that I have extreme difficulty in walking although I can walk short distances once I leave the confines of my home I use a wheelchair. The more I walk stand or do any physical activity the more pain I experience. To have any sort of life I have to follow a pain management routine.

I was brought up in a Christian environment and made a personal commitment to the Christian faith when I was 13 years of age.

Although Spastic Diplegia is a congenital condition its affect on me were minimal until I gave birth to my son. It was then that the nerve damage in my spine became evident and walking caused me pain. I progressed from walking with a walking stick to a walking with crutches and by the time four years have passed began using a wheelchair. My husband has had three heart attacks so his health means that he is not able to assist me by pushing my wheelchair and there are many occasions when he is not fit enough to accompany me when I go out.

I have decided to tell My Story in this form and send it over the Internet to Christian sites and organizations because it is my wish that my story will act as a warning to Christians around the world. PLEASE PLEASE PASS IT ON. Practice inclusive love as Jesus loved. Treat everyone as if they were an angel in disguise. Remember that your actions can make or break a personís faith.

Coming to terms with disability as a Christian is not easy and my journey in this is not one for sharing here but eventually I got to the point of being able to proclaim the ďI am a disabled Christian and disability is acceptable in the eyes of God. If you with to receive a meditation on this you can email me direct on [email protected]

When my son was born we had attended a local Anglican church but as my walking and deteriorated we became unable to attend and the church just forgot about us. Four years passed and I finally got my first wheelchair and Iíve learned to drive. For the next six years we attended another Anglican church during our time there I fought to improve the disabled access to the building and to have a wheelchair access toilets installed. There were so many occasions when I could not get parked because church members would not leave onsite parking for those that needed it. I even tried talking to the congregation during one service but it made no difference. We finally left when it was clear that the church had no intention of bringing the disabled access up to a reasonable standard. I felt strongly that God was telling us not to accept second best but to go to a church that had wheelchair access. So we joined the Methodist circuit in a Barnsley south Yorkshire in the UK.

It soon became clear that the philosophy of Methodism was inclusive and I was encouraged by the possibilities. I had longed for the opportunity to study theology and the preacherís course enabled me to fulfill this longing. I spent several months visiting all the churches in my area and made a list of those whose access was good and where I would be able to preach. From then on I only attended churches where the building was built with wheelchair access.

Everything started well but I began to experience access problems -- not with the buildings but with procedures. I used my knowledge and skills to try to affect change. At one church I was repeatedly locked into the worship area because a steward locked one half of the double doors behind me. On one occasion I literally brought a service to a standstill because I could not get out to use the toilet. At another church every time I approached the building I could not get in because one side of the double doors was locked. This church was on two levels if I could not get parked on the top level access on the lower level was via a fire exit door that was never manned and did not have a door bell. On one dark night I had to approach a stranger on the street to go and find someone to let me in. All the problems I experienced had simple solutions but no would listen. These small barriers to access became mountains that I had to climb every time I attended church. I spoke to so many people to try to get things changed.

I suggested training. I spoke about the churches need to comply with the Disability Discrimination act. I spoke to ministers, lay workers, my tutor, church stewards and welcomers many of these people were on their church council but not one would put it on the agenda. I was labeled as a trouble maker. Each time I spoke to someone I could see that they were not listening. Over a period of 6 years no would take any notice or offer me any help. I felt like a waste of space. Where was God in all this because no matter how I prayed nothing changed. I found it more and more difficult to cope and began to stay at home instead of going to church. Then over a period of 6 weeks I was locked out of three meetings. I was furious when I left my last church I had vowed that I would never be locked out again.

This time I took drastic action and went to see the circuit superintendent. This so called man of God would not help. Hhe said "You credit me with more power that I have." He would not call a meeting of the ministers. He would not deal with the access problems in his own church. He would not tell me where to go for help. He blocked all my suggestions and refused to allow me to speak to the church.

To the best of my knowledge and know-how I had followed scripture in trying to resolve this conflict. I climbed the hierarchical ladder and got to the top. So what next?

I could just climb back into my hole and put up with this injustice and discrimination. I could continue to feel like a waste of space and in valid in the eyes of the church or I could take a stand for justice.

I could not continue the way things were it was just too difficult so I took a stand for justice and filed proceedings under the Disability Discrimination Act.

This finally made the church sit up and listen and to cut a long process short we settled out of court. My settlement was a minimum access contract and £3000 compensation. Now I could get on with my church life. The next week I returned to church. The superintendent (Who incidentally was also my minister) approached me and said ďI have been instructed by legal counsel not to speak to you" I tried 5 times for reconciliation but it my requests were ignored.

Was the cost to high? Yes defiantly! It Cost the church around £26.000 to defend this case. The personal cost for me has been my faith I will leave you to decide who paid more risked more lost more.

Would I do it again? Yes defiantly. It just became too difficult to dealt with the physical barriers and the judgmental attitudes every week.

Do I feel guilty Ė No I had to try everything to protect my right to access worship.

How does God feel? Ask him yourself. We donít talk anymore.

Where is God in this? Is it right that disabled people should be denied access to worship? Is it right that an individual should be pressured to legal action because churches refuse to comply with the Disability Discrimination Act? How could I attend church if my minister refused to speak to me, how could I receive communion from this man.

So I have left the church and given up my faith. It is too difficult to start again somewhere else with the same access issues. This experience has destroyed my faith I will never enter a church again nor will my husband and son.

What is the point of the Christian faith when those that say they believe donít follow the teaching of scripture? Some of you may think that my story is a rare occurrence but I tell you it is not. One of my friend who is also a wheelchair user has been going to the same church for 30 years and they still have not seen fit to install a disabled toilet. I have another friend who could only access her church via the vestry. She stopped going when the minister complained about having to move furniture to ease the passage into the church. I have another friend who is still waiting for access to her church.

Christian love Must find a solution to church access issues because the human cost of not complying with the Disability Discrimination Act is spiritual death.

By the way, for those of you who have suggestions of what I should have/could have done: donít pass them this way. I am learning to move on without my faith. Use them to benefit your own church. Donít allow a disabled person to be discriminated against or victimized. We are all equal in Gods eyes. At least that is was I used to believe!!!

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Originally posted: 2008-FEB-11
Latest update: 2008-FEB-11
Author: Tina Heron

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