Back home, Chipoka preaches and teaches in sign language and is an advocate for women in leadership in churches. Though her role is one of teaching and administration, Chipoka wants people to know that she is also a worshiper. Her love for singing is often met with surprise because of her disability. She uses her hands as a voice unto God, often proclaiming through song, “I praise the Lord my Savior for the wonderful gift of life he has given us.”
In a session during the Ecumenical Disabilities Advocates Network (EDAN) pre-assembly on Women: Experience sharing and Future possibilities, Grace Thomas, 19, from the United Kingdom, said . “People don’t want to see you apart from your disability,” but that people with disabilities want to fully belong in churches.
Women in the disabled community face multiple barriers in society including gaining access to medical services and equipment, taking public transportation and even receiving an education. For many women who participated in the session, the church has perpetuated some of the same conditions. Through EDAN church leaders can learn ways they can be different from the systems that currently stigmatize disability and ignore the human need for accommodation.
Thomas, who self-labels herself as a complex physical and mental health and multiply neurodivergent person, is an autistic wheelchair user, and inclusion consultant and trainer. She suggests that churches offer a full overview of their services, communications and their physical meeting spaces.
“My current church has a ramp to get on the stage,” says Thomas. As a person who enjoys public speaking, knowing that her church supports her and welcomes her to be visible creates a sense of belonging. Having access to the stage gives her the freedom to have her voice heard, even on her non-speaking days. “I want to participate, and not just sit in the corner,” she said.
For the Rev. Vicki Terrell, 62, of the Anglican Church in New Zealand, being a priest with cerebral palsy has been a challenge of understanding. Through her work as a disability ministry educator in the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia, Terrell raises awareness about ways people with disabilities can fully participate in churches.
Terrell says that impairment is a gift and can be used in ministry. She claims that people should acknowledge and address their own discomfort with disability and biases about persons with disabilities. “People are surprised to find that I am intelligent and like good, robust theological debate,” she says.
Shary Cotacachi, 42, from the Catholic church in Ecuador says that churches need to “bear in mind the condition of the whole person” when it comes to inclusion and belonging. In her experience, she is often celebrated for her gift of singing while her blindness is often not accommodated for. “Inclusion is a human right,” she says.