Small, dedicated group draws gratitude for understanding inclusivity issues
by Darla Carter | Presbyterian News Service
LOUISVILLE — If the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A)’s cadre of Disability Concerns Consultants had a motto, it might be “We are small but mighty.”
That’s how Hunter Steinitz, an elder at Riverview United Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, describes the group, which consists of four consultants who each have a different specialty: people with mobility or accessibility issues, people with intellectual or developmental disabilities, people who are deaf or hard of hearing, and people who are blind or have low vision.
Taking questions mostly by phone or email, the consultants help disabled people throughout the PC(USA) to feel welcome.
“The biggest thing I hear from people who call is that they are so grateful to have someone not only that is listening but someone who understands,” said the Rev. Sue Montgomery, who leads the consultancy team and serves as the mobility/accessibility consultant.
Steinitz interacts with the consultants as moderator of Presbyterians for Disability Concerns, a group that works for disability inclusion in ministries, communities and the PC(USA). She recently described the role of Disability Concerns Consultants this way:
“They are out there for congregations, for individuals, for people with disabilities (who are) looking to find faith communities that are inclusive and accessible,” she said. Consultants also “help anybody really looking to increase their inclusivity and their accessibility so that more people with varying abilities can be active and participate in the life of the church.”
The Presbyterian Mission Agency (PMA) contracts with the Disability Concerns Consultants on a two-year cycle and recently hired hearing consultant Kathy McIndoe and the Rev. Dr. Bethany McKinney Fox, who’s the intellectual/developmental disabilities consultant. They join Montgomery and the Rev. Dr. Karen Moritz, the consultant for people who have low-vision or blindness.
“Working very closely with Sue to contract with her three Disability Consultant colleagues, I have become very aware of their importance to the Church’s ability to provide a safe, inclusive space for people living with disabilities,” said Lacey Hunter, a manager of Finance and Administration for PMA. “The lived experience, skill, and sensitivity they offer is crucial.”
Steinitz said she is “over the moon” that the consultancy team is up to full staff.
However, “I’m even more excited that most of our consultants are themselves people affected with the disability that is their subject matter expertise,” she said. “It’s so very important that people affected with the thing in question be the ones to provide the information because they live it every single day in a way that someone who just knows about it can’t quite match.”
As a woman who’s been blind since birth, Moritz is sensitive to the issues that people with conditions that affect their vision face in church and community settings. “It’s kind of a thing close to my heart because I think the church still struggles to know how to include people with disabilities,” said Moritz, a former mission co-Worker and retired Nebraska pastor. “I know all of us want to be there to help make that process easier and less frightening for people.”
Examples of the questions and comments that come to the consultants include the following:
- I have a gluten intolerance. How can I participate in Communion?
- Help! I need curriculum help for children and adults with intellectual disabilities.
- Can you give me information about accessibility audits/checklists/surveys?
- My presbytery meets in a church that’s not accessible. Don’t they get it?
- How can our church begin a ministry with persons who are deaf?
- What do I say to a child who asks, “Why me?”
Montgomery, an honorably retired pastor who has a birth defect that has limited the use of her legs, said the people they hear from often are “looking for answers to a situation they’re dealing with in their congregation.” They may be a parent with a child who has a disability, or they may be “a teacher in a confirmation class looking for curriculum that’s geared toward people with cognitive or intellectual disabilities.”
Consultants also hear from people who have financial questions such as “How do we receive grants?” she said.
In addition to having conversations with people who have such questions, the consultants and Presbyterians for Disability Concerns can provide people with various resources.
“We have a blog,” Steinitz said. “We also have a number of resources,” including Sunday school materials for multiple age groups, so “check out all of the things that we have to offer and if there is something that you think you need or want that you don’t see, let us know. We’re always developing new and better materials to help folks think about ways to better include people with all abilities.”
The overall effort “is about participating in worship in whatever way people are able and want to and it’s also about enabling individuals with disabilities to serve in leadership capacities,” said Steinitz, who has a rare condition called Harlequin ichthyosis that gives her skin a red appearance. “So, it is about being able to come through the door, but it’s also about preparing for them once they’re here.”
Fox, the founder of a new worshipping community called Beloved Everybody in Los Angeles, expresses the need for inclusivity this way: “Particularly in a tradition like ours, with such deep regard for theological scholarship and meaningful verbal liturgy, there can be folks in the Body of Christ whose leadership, gifts, and participation are left out, simply because they may not express themselves primarily through verbal language or abstract concepts,” she said. “I hope that in this role I can work alongside folks with intellectual and developmental disabilities, whenever possible, to broaden the imagination of some of our practices and create more ideological and practical space for the beautiful diversity of bodies and brains among all of us whom God has created.”
Fox added that she has been “so encouraged by … the faithful commitment that folks from all over the country have shown for making a way for everyone in their community to participate and thrive, even when things become complicated, or a situation arises that doesn’t have an easy answer.”
Montgomery, who lives in Pennsylvania, noted that it’s important for people who want to make their churches better for people with disabilities to take the time to seek input from them.
“Get to know the person,” she said. “Get to know the family. Get to know what” their ministry needs are, because “if you don’t, you can end up paying for an elevator that nobody can use or a ramp that can’t be used because it’s too steep.”
That’s where a consultant can be helpful, Moritz said. “I feel like my job is partly, especially with congregations, to allow them to have that conversation with me, and then hopefully get some tools about how they can have that conversation with people in their congregation.”
Moritz also can be helpful to those who need help beyond the church. As a former vocational rehabilitation counselor, “I have an awareness of some of the other services that are available outside the church,” she said. “… Sometimes, people just don’t know where to go to get the help that would improve their lives.”
You may freely reuse and distribute this article in its entirety for non-commercial purposes in any medium. Please include author attribution, photography credits, and a link to the original article. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDeratives 4.0 International License.