This year marks the thirtieth anniversary since U.S. President George H. W. Bush signed into law the Americans With Disabilities Act on July 26, 1990. Thirty years later, it’s hard to imagine a time before wheelchair-accessible parking places, ramps along with stairs, closed captioning, and interpreters for those who are deaf. Today, not a store, school, church, theater, museum, airport, train station, athletic field, or arena is inaccessible to those who are physically disabled.
I remember as a pastor 30 years ago being told how our churches and schools would have to be retrofitted to accommodate those with disabilities. One of the churches I pastored at the time was totally inaccessible to those who couldn’t navigate stairs. To get to the sanctuary, you had to climb stairs, either outside or indoors. The restrooms were located in the basement, effectively telling anyone who worshipped with us, “If you can’t climb stairs, if you can’t hold it, you can’t worship with us.”
To be fair, this church building was constructed long before anyone understood accessibility as a right. People with disabilities just had to understand that they would never be able to experience what most of us considered “normal” do.
Thankfully, as a society we’ve learned to be more sensitive to those who might be marginalized by their inability to climb stairs, use unmodified bathrooms, or access public transportation. The Americans With Disabilities Act opened up a whole new world of accessibility. So much so that news reports often feature people who participate in sports, perform artistically, and live fully functional lives in spite of their disabilities.
The recent death of congressman John Lewis reminded us that not that long before the Americans With Disabilities Act was signed into law, some businesses were able to refuse service to patrons who were Black. Segregated water fountains, restrooms, and public transportation prevented accessibility to a large percentage of the population.
Nothing less than an act of Congress—The Civil Rights Act of 1964—gave Black people in the United States access to integrated schools, businesses, and communities. Despite that landmark legislation, de facto segregation still exists, demonstrated in vivid detail by the recent murder of George Floyd and the racial protests that roiled cities in the United States as well as around the world.
The blindness that kept people from recognizing the discrimination experienced by people with disabilities and prevents people still from identifying and dealing with systemic racism is something we Christians have to admit and rectify.
A popular meme has sprung up recently from Christians who maintain that because Jesus was a spiritual leader, we should concern ourselves with spiritual matters and not get bogged down with social concerns.
That would be fine if Jesus hadn’t often in His ministry broken down social barriers as He preached the gospel. He engaged a Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well (John 4); He made the hero of one of His most famous parables a Samaritan (Luke 10); He healed the daughter of a Canaanite woman over the protests of His disciples (Matt. 15); He healed the servant of a Roman centurion (Matt. 8); He healed a man whose only access to Him was through a hole in the roof (Luke 5). These and other acts demonstrate that Jesus’ ministry was about inclusion and accessibility as much as it was about the gospel.
Then there’s the example of the apostle Peter (Acts 10). While waiting for a meal, he had a vision about food. Except it wasn’t about food; it was about people. “God has shown me,” he said afterward, “that I should not call anyone impure or unclean” (verse 28).
This was the point at which Christ’s disciples realized that the gospel belonged to the entire world, not just to the Jews. Suddenly they realized that the kingdom of God is designed to be accessible to everyone. In the centuries since, we’ve understood (in theory) that we all come from one Creator, and that we are valuable in His sight no matter our skin color, ethnicity, education, or financial standing.
The age of COVID has exposed some interesting challenges to society in general and to Christianity in particular.
These include the matter of access to medical services for millions of people, often enough because of the cost of insurance, in the country that spends more on health care per capita than any other country in the world.2 Having access to health care in the United States is for some individuals and populations a continuing challenge, something the COVID-19 pandemic has made rather more sharply clear. This contrasts with a number of other services that are much more readily available to all and sundry—public education; town and country roads, state and interstate highways; mail service; security.
Admittedly, life, liberty and happiness aren’t usually delivered whole cloth, with little effort of their own, into everybody’s lap. Those who sought total accessibility in public places for those with disabilities were described as impractical dreamers. But all these decades later we understand that the time, effort, and money expended to achieve these goals were well worth it. Our society is better now than it was.
We can hope that years into the future we’ll be able to look back at the efforts to supply other areas of current lack with the same appreciation we now offer to those behind the Americans With Disabilities Act (1990) and the Civil Rights Act (1964).
The United States is forever in pursuit of liberty and justice for all. The mandate of Christ’s kingdom is “the eternal gospel . . . to every nation, tribe, language and people” (Rev. 14:6). Sometimes Christians’ commitment to the principles of the kingdom of their Lord produce an improved quality of life right in the here and now. We should not fear or apologize for efforts for eternity that bring material blessings to our neighbors and our nation.
Stephen Chavez is an assistant editor of Adventist Review.