I think a lot about this photo that I took at Camp Freedom.
To the average viewer, it is most likely your typical camp beach photo loaded with sunshine, happy clouds, and happier people. I am not here to dispute that, because the photo is certainly all of that to me as well. Yet, if you were to zoom out about 20 feet and look at me as I took this photo, you would see me standing next to my buddy, the camper I was assigned to for the weekend, who was positioned directly to my right. My buddy, diagnosed with Cerebral Palsy, utilized a motorized wheelchair to navigate his world. Less likely to have been noticed if you zoomed out, would have been the exact spot where we were standing, which was at the end of the paved area directly before the sand and grass began. The beach that initially seemed to be “just right there” suddenly felt so far away, and in an instant, an impossibility for us.
Before I go further, I want to make it clear that as an able-bodied person, I am in no way saying that my weekend partnered with a wheelchair user puts me in the same boat of understanding. I am well aware that I had just a very small glimpse of my camper’s life and what being a wheelchair user means at a place like camp. I would never pretend that I have the exact same understanding based solely on a few days at camp. I do feel comfortable stating that I was given brand new insight into the limitations and frustrations of trying to be a part of a world that is not designed for you and too often does not care to change.
I also want to make sure everyone reading this knows what great lengths this camp goes to make anything and everything accessible. In one conversation we had with the camp manager about future upgrades to make the restrooms more accessible, he agreed and said that this is the weekend where we make it happen.
All of that is well and good, but when you are standing at the edge of the paved area looking out at everyone having fun at the beach, without the ability to go further, that can be a devastating feeling. I remember thinking, “There has to be a way for us to do what everyone else is doing. There just has to be.” With the assistance of another volunteer, we not only made it out to go swimming, but we also went for a kayak ride, doing what everyone else was doing.
That “line in the sand” that we encountered reappeared in various forms throughout the weekend. At meals, all the rectangular tables were positioned to allow maximum seating. Our table was a circular one at the front of the room, which had additional space for wheelchair users to navigate. My camper had a seat at the table, but did he really? Again, I am not slighting the camp as I know they planned everything to allow everyone to participate as fully as possible. I just found myself sitting at the table with my camper, meal after meal, wondering if he was upset about not being able to sit next to his friends.
We ran into a few other situations which were not the most user-friendly for wheelchair users, but we both put a smile on our faces and made the very best of it. After all, can you really expect the zipline toward to be built considering wheelchair users? Probably not. It didn’t stop us, but that presented some unique challenges for us to overcome together.
As I look back on that photo, I remember distinctly the feeling of what it meant to be standing where I was standing. I had the ability to move forward, my camper did not.
It made me think about church and where that line in the sand is for others. If we are called to minister with, and not just to those affected by disability, we have to move the line in the sand. We have to remove it all together. I would argue that every church has a line in the sand somewhere, though it is just placed differently. For some churches, the disability ministry is tucked off into a corner, out of sight from all of the regular churchgoers. For some churches, the disability ministry is non-existent in the first place, making the line in the sand at the front door. The same front door with greeters and smiling faces where everyone is welcome can still be an obstacle for others.
The visual hits me of standing at the main entrance of church, Bible in hand, my buddy right next to me knowing that there is no real place for him. He might as well not go inside in the first place. The line in the sand, once drawn, is nearly impossible to cross, especially on your own.
On social media recently, it was asked, “Could some disabled people not lead, rather than attend services? The assumption that churches response to disabled people is attendance and care can be quite devaluing!” Absolutely those affected by disability can lead. They can lead, they must lead, and the “solution” should always be well beyond just attendance. However, one cannot lead if they do not even feel welcome in the building in the first place. Wouldn’t coming to Christ be far more important than coming to camp, and if so, why are more churches not creating intentional outreach to and with the disability community?
How do we change the line in the sand?
- Acknowledgment: Nobody is perfect. No church is perfect. No one place is doing every single thing correctly. If your church is one that has missed opportunities in the past for outreach to and with the disability community, there is nothing wrong with acknowledging that and working on a plan to correct it moving forward.
- Accessibility: We have put together a checklist that is free to download and go over at your location. For many, this could be an eye-opener as to what your building is communicating to those affected by disability. Granted, you might not be able to change everything at once, however, we encourage you to go over this list and think about the potential impact any changes could have on those visiting your campus. Download our free Campus Accessibility Checklist here.
- Consultation: When you think about starting a disability ministry, it can be easy to go down the rabbit hole of all things you are not doing or all of the things you cannot do. You might feel there is just too much to do to get started. We believe that every church can begin somewhere and you would be surprised at what you already have at your fingertips to get going. Set up some time for a free consultation with us to help you figure out the best plan moving forward from exactly where you are right now.
- Just get started: Too often, we want a perfect situation before we can moving. The phrase, “I want to drop a few more pounds before I get active in the gym” comes to my mind. What if you made the decision to get started and then prayed that God would work with whatever it was you were doing? I tend to think big things could happen. The first steps, and even the next steps, are not as difficult as you might think. No matter where you find yourself, there are so many resources at your fingertips to get started.
Jason joins the Ability Ministry team and brings over 20 years of graphic design and marketing experience to the table. He has handled projects from local start-up businesses to publicly owned internationally based companies, including a Shark Tank company. Jason currently reside in Louisville with his wife, two daughters, and dog Pepper. In his spare time, he is a Master’s competitor in USA Weightlifting. His family attends Southeast Christian Church.