Opening doors to people with disabilities


5:00 P.M. EST August 24, 2010

A UMNS web-only illustration by Kathleen Barry.
A UMNS web-only illustration by Kathleen Barry.

The United Methodist Church promises “open doors,” but many people with disabilities and their families perceive barriers to full life in the church.

The problem is often one of attitude, said the Rev. J. Eric Pridmore, a United Methodist pastor in Mississippi and co-chair of the United Methodist Association of Ministers with Disabilities.

“I think more than anything else what families and individuals want is a welcoming attitude,” he said. “Usually, the accessibility stuff will take care of itself after that.”

In May, Pridmore, who is legally blind, completed his dissertation on disability rights in the denomination from 1968 to 2004. He presented his findings earlier this month at a meeting of the Association for the Sociology of Religion in Atlanta.

Promoting inclusion

The General Conference, the denomination’s top legislative body, has made some improvements since The United Methodist Church formed in 1968, Pridmore said. He specifically noted the addition of a Disability Awareness Sunday to the church calendar and the mandate that local churches perform an accessibility audit each year.

Still, he said, the denomination as a whole treats disability as a health issue rather than a social issue like race and gender. He acknowledged that disability has a health component, but he argues disability rights also are a matter of social justice.

As with racial minorities and women, Pridmore said, the church should recognize the full humanity and ministerial gifts of people with disabilities.

Lynn M. Swedburg, chair of the United Methodist Task Force on Disability Ministries, shared that view.

“We need to realize that promoting inclusion of all persons is not a fringe issue, but rather one that touches the core of who we are and who we should be,” she said. “If we are truly to be a missional church that reaches out into the neighborhoods and the world, we do need to be open to all.”

Members of the Christ United Methodist Church of the Deaf Choir perform at the 2008 General Conference. A UMNS file photo by Mike DuBose.
Members of the Christ United Methodist Church of the Deaf Choir perform at the 2008 General Conference. A UMNS file photo by Mike DuBose.

Choosing accessibility

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 largely exempts religious groups from following its provisions. However, the law bans all employers of 15 or more people from discriminating against “qualified individuals with disabilities.” It also requires employers to “reasonably accommodate the disabilities of qualified applicants or employees unless undue hardship would result.”

The General Conference adopted a resolution in support of the act’s employment requirements in 1992.

Even before the federal law passed, the General Conference approved a resolution in 1984 that urged local congregations to make their facilities and parsonages fully accessible to those with “seen and unseen” disabilities. The same resolution also encouraged better training for pastors to minister to those with disabilities and their families, and called on church members “to speak out on their rights in society.”

These resolutions, though, are voluntary, Pridmore said.

He said the denomination should offer workshops for clergy and laity to raise awareness about the needs of people with disabilities and their families. He said many improvements that increase accessibility cost less than $1,000. These include large-print bulletins, technical assistance for the hearing impaired and wheelchair ramps.

He also thinks the denomination should do more to empower those with disabilities. That includes recruiting, training and supporting clergy with disabilities. He has talked to United Methodist pastors who have had to fight for their ordination after church leaders questioned their ability because of physical “impairment.”

“Charitable access by The UMC is neither an appropriate or adequate response to disability rights,” he told those gathered in Atlanta.

Ministerial gifts

“There are still some attitudes around that see persons with disabilities as less than whole — as persons to be ministered to, rather than persons who are also capable of ministering to others,” Swedburg said. 

She and Pridmore stressed that the church stands to benefit from the ministry of people with disabilities.

Pridmore is co-pastor of Memorial United Methodist Church in Bolton, Miss., with his wife, Lisa. He said his disability has helped him relate to some older members of the congregation whose eyesight or hearing is deteriorating.

He is dealing with a situation most U.S. pastors will face as congregations age.

According to the 2000 U.S. census, 14 million people age 65 and older reported at least some level of disability, often linked to conditions such as heart disease or arthritis.

The Rev. Eric Pridmore, led by his guide dog Gene, prepares for the morning service at Goodman Memorial United Methodist Church in Cary, Miss. A UMNS file photo by Mike DuBose.
The Rev. Eric Pridmore, led by his guide dog Gene, prepares for the morning service at Goodman Memorial United Methodist Church in Cary, Miss. A UMNS file photo by Mike DuBose.
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That number will likely grow as baby boomers enter their golden years. The U.S. Census Bureau projects the number of Americans who are 65 and older will double between 2000 and 2030, to about 72 million people. That’s nearly one in five Americans.

Pridmore has known members who have quit coming to church because they started having trouble hearing. If churches want longtime members to continue coming to worship and sharing their gifts with the church, they need to serve their needs.

Bless the children

The church also benefits from the ministry of children with disabilities.

Beth DeHoff said the congregation of Speedway United Methodist Church in Indianapolis, Ind., readily accepted her son, Kyle, who was born with Down syndrome and autism.

Church members welcome Kyle to sit on the floor in front of the praise band, and he often gets up to dance to the upbeat worship hymns. DeHoff said the praise band members say they find inspiration from Kyle, whom they count as their biggest fan.

Five years ago, DeHoff felt called by God to start a ministry at the church for children with special needs. She said six to eight families with children with intellectual and developmental disabilities have since joined the church.

“Kids with disabilities get the important part of God’s love without any difficulty at all,” DeHoff said. “It makes you wonder who really has the disability.”

*Hahn is a United Methodist News Service multimedia reporter.

News contact: Heather Hahn, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or