Participants in the DEEN Peer Network program meet at the Islamic Institute of Toronto in Toronto, Canada. Photo courtesy of DEEN Support Services.

This story is part of a series on disability and faith.

(RNS) — In the 1970s, Rabia Khedr was growing up in a bustling South Asian Muslim community near Toronto. But unlike many of her neighbors, Khedr rarely attended the local mosque.

“We were there, it might have been for Friday prayers,” Khedr said. “My brothers, because of the nature of their disability, made involuntary sounds. And at some point in the sermon, the imam remarked, ‘Women, if you cannot manage your children, if you cannot control them or keep them quiet, please do not come.’ So my mother took that literally.”

Decades later, Khedr — who is blind — is now CEO of DEEN Support Services, a disability support organization founded by disabled Muslims. She’s one of a number of disabled folks and allies advancing accessibility and disability justice in religious contexts, something advocates say is long overdue.

“It’s not just a legal duty, or human rights duty. It’s a spiritual duty,” Khedr said about accessibility.

As part of its mission, DEEN, which stands for Disability Empowerment Equality Network, advocates for accessible mosques. First steps might include having sign language interpretation, offering the Quran in Braille or audio formats and making sure those who use mobility devices can access ablution stations for purification rituals. She added that incorporating different textures on the floor of the prayer room would help her and others who are blind or have low vision know which way to face for prayer.

“For me, attitude is the biggest barrier in places of worship,” said Khedr. She believes Islamic teachings already account for disabled people: Muslims just have to apply them.

Rabia Khedr. Courtesy photo

Lamar Hardwick, author of “Disability and the Church” and pastor at Tri-Cities Church in East Point, Georgia, is known online as the “Autism Pastor.” But it wasn’t until age 36 that he was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder and began to identify as disabled. For years, Hardwick was told he lacked the social skills to be an effective pastor. But looking back, Hardwick realized he wasn’t to blame — it was the church that had excluded those who experienced the world differently.

Today, Hardwick’s church offers sensory bags furnished with noise-canceling headphones and fidgets to help attendees cope with overstimulation. The church has a room with a livestream of the service for those sensitive to loud noise, as many on the spectrum are, and no longer includes a moment for mutual greeting during worship. Hardwick said the hugs and handshakes can unintentionally sideline folks with disabilities.

“I found out that a lot of the reasons why people in our congregation are coming late is because they have social anxiety or OCD. They don’t like forced touch, they don’t like the attention to be placed on them,” Hardwick explained.

He told Religion News Service that churches ought to take disability justice seriously because there are probably already disabled folks in their community who aren’t speaking up about their needs. After he shared his diagnosis with his church in 2015, Hardwick said, members opened up about their experiences with dementia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, anxiety and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder.

Pastor Lamar Hardwick speaks at Tri-Cities Church in East Point, Georgia, during a Juneteenth service. Hardwick is known online as the “Autism Pastor.” Photo courtesy of Tri-Cities Church.

“It was the erosion of that stigma that made it comfortable for everybody to finally talk about what they’re really challenged with,” he said.

Hardwick added that churches should prioritize accessibility because countless disabled folks opt out of church altogether due to barriers to space and community. The presence of physical barriers in particular isn’t surprising; in the United States, religious institutions are exempt from the Americans with Disabilities Act, which prohibits discrimination based on ability in areas like public accommodations, employment and transportation.

“In religious communities, there’s no way to bring the law to bear to say that you have to make places accessible,” said Rabbi Julia Watts Belser, longtime disability justice advocate and an associate professor of Jewish studies at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. “So often, disabled folks are in the position of having to feel like we have to ask for favors for everything.”

If a house of worship doesn’t think to designate a room for those feeling overstimulated or include bathroom stalls that wheelchair users can access, the burden falls on disabled folks to advocate for their needs.

“If your whole life feels contingent on other people doing favors, this is a sort of charitable model of, we will do nice things for you if we like you,” noted Watts Belser. “It becomes transactional. And it depends on a lot of people’s goodwill. You never want justice and equity to be dependent on goodwill.”

The disability justice movement takes the matter of agency seriously. Too often, disabled folks are treated either as inspirational heroes or as charity cases. Both instances objectify the disabled person.

Rabbi Michael Levy works on his computer with a refreshable Braille display screen reader. Photo courtesy of Levy.

Growing up in a small New Jersey town as a blind child, Rabbi Michael Levy often found himself the recipient of unwanted pity. He still remembers the time a man from the nearby Orthodox synagogue came to visit his family and singled him out, at age 3, from among his siblings to teach him the Shema, a declaration of Jewish belief. 

“Why did he come to me? He came because he thought: This poor blind boy is not going to learn anything,” Levy told RNS.

As president of Yad HaChazakah, an organization led by Jews with disabilities based in New York City, Levy focuses on empowering disabled folks. Part of the group’s efforts involve increasing accessibility at local synagogues by ensuring that those with mobility devices can reach the pulpit where the Torah is read, or by keeping those who are deaf, blind or have low vision in mind when producing handouts, websites and videos.

“The problem is not the disability. That’s the medical model,” Levy clarified. “The person-centered model is that the problem is society not accommodating the disability.”

Unlike Levy, Georgia Kashnig joined the disability community later in life after a brain injury. Kashnig is a doctoral student in religious and theological studies at Georgetown University and is a Buddhist practitioner. Though Kashnig, who uses they/them pronouns, has been a disciple of a Buddhist temple in Oregon for 15 years, they only began to apply a disability justice lens to their spiritual community after their brain injury about four years ago.

“When I started studying disability justice-oriented issues, I realized I had language that lived in my body that was ableist simply because I chanted it every day. So that’s very painful to discover. It was for me,” shared Kashnig.

Georgia Kashnig. Photo courtesy of Kashnig

Some of that language Kashnig identified as ableist equates blindness with delusion. Buddhist practices, too, can exclude folks with physical disabilities, they said.

“There is kind of an ideal image of meditation practice that you are sitting cross legged, on a cushion, facing a wall,” Kashnig explained. “But some people can’t sit on a cushion. Some people need a chair, some need to stand. Without an accessibility-oriented approach to practice, a lot of people could feel pressured to make their body look like something in particular in that space, or they might feel unwelcome to be themselves.”

For their dissertation, Kashnig is planning to apply disability studies theory to a Buddhist text called the Lotus Sutra and eventually hopes to share their disability justice approach to Buddhism with other practitioners more broadly.

Given the world’s growing population of folks over 65 as well as the long-term effects of COVID-19, religious groups can’t afford to put disability justice on the back burner. One billion people — 15% of the global population — live with disabilities. As many disability advocates point out, if your spiritual home doesn’t have disabled community members, it’s not because they don’t exist: It’s because, in all likelihood, they don’t feel welcome.