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I used to love attending church. From sixth grade until several years ago, I attended church regularly. I sang in choirs and praise teams, led and attended bible studies, and made sure to never bring something homemade to a potluck because cooking is not one of my gifts. Soon after being diagnosed with psoriasis, fibromyalgia, psoriatic arthritis, and endometriosis, attending church became problematic. Later, after never-ending chronic pain, illness progression, and surgical errors made me a wheelchair user, my issues with attending church escalated.
The purpose of this post is not to bash churches but to shed light on what makes it difficult for the chronically ill and wheelchair users to attend in person.
Disclaimer: This blog post contains affiliate links. I may earn a small commission to fund my coffee drinking habit if you use these links to make a purchase. You will not be charged extra, and you’ll keep me supplied with caffeine. It’s a win for everyone. I am not a medical professional, and nothing stated in this article should be mistaken for medical advice…
Lack Of Accessibility
I am a sucker for historic buildings! They are beautiful and have so many stories to tell. Unfortunately, those buildings weren’t made for the disabled. Most people choose a church based on denomination, community, family, or location. My options are extremely limited because I need to first know if it is accessible. But even that is not enough.
A church may seem accessible at first, but its inaccessibility is uncovered after attending an event or two. Wheelchair users need to access more than the sanctuary. Accessible restroom stalls are useless if stairs lead to the restroom entrance or the hallway or restroom is so narrow that it is impossible to get a wheelchair through when other people are present.
Fellowship halls and bible study rooms also need to provide accessibility. Can a wheelchair user enter the room without assistance? Is there an area near an exit where they can sit if they need to use the restroom or leave early? Hosting a buffet? Designate tables and spaces near the food for wheelchair users and their families to have easy access to.
Wheelchair Users Are Not Expected
I have visited many churches with a wheelchair, and only one considered the needs of their mobility challenged congregants when designing their sanctuary. Unlike other churches that expect us to park ourselves in the aisles or other walkways, this one had designated wheelchair spaces with companion seats next to them. Wheelchair users were not sticking out. They blended in with the rest of the congregation.
Another awesome thing they did for their mobility-challenged congregants was having the ushers provide rollator valet service! They would escort the person to wherever they wanted to sit, then park the rollators. They were returned to the person when the service ended. Except for maybe needing it for an emergency restroom visit, I thought this was pretty cool.
Unfortunately, I never had a chance to check out the rest of their campus because the fog machine used during worship made it difficult to breathe. FYI Fog machines are NOT cool and do NOT enhance the praise band’s performance.
If a wheelchair user has to wait for someone to find the keys to a different door because the main entrance is inaccessible, they are at a church that doesn’t expect disabled members or guests.
Church Is Painful For This Chronically Ill Wheelchair User
People are too touchy-feely! I begged pastors to discourage handshakes and touching in any form during flu season. Having multiple autoimmune diseases makes navigating life during times when germs are everywhere a tad bit terrifying. There is no such thing as a simple cold for us. We get sicker and take longer to heal than the average person.
But germs are not the only problem with people touching each other. My chronic illnesses are painful, hence how I became a wheelchair user. My mobility aid prevents additional physical pain and gives back the mobility my illnesses stole. So while I can place my hands in my lap to signal that I do not wish to shake hands, it is not enough.
Honestly, outside of turning my wheelchair into the Popemobile, how do I stop people from touching my body? How do I signal that a pat on my back or a shoulder squeeze will trigger a pain flare that could last for weeks?
Outside of turning my #wheelchair into the Popemobile, how does one convey the message #DoNotTouch? #ChronicIllnessProblemsTweet
Touch, especially unexpected or unwelcomed, creates a whirlwind of problems. There’s the immediate pain. That initial touch then turns into shockwaves that torture the rest of my body. And it isn’t only a physical reaction. Unexpected and unwelcomed touch may also trigger an emotional shockwave of past trauma.
So while everyone else is focused on the pastor’s lesson, I am left sitting there praying that I can keep the pain from escalating while feverishly digging through my bag for any or all of my pain relief tools. I hold back my tears or end up leaving. Either way, the rest of my week was spent in pain. It is impossible to concentrate on the lesson when my body is in a state of shock.
Don’t get me wrong. I love a good hug and personal contact, but it must be gentle, wanted, and expected. When Sunday mornings at church became more painful than a day at Disneyland, it was time for me to begin attending online.
Our Disabilities Are Not Accepted
As a chronically ill wheelchair user, I have experienced my fair share of people try to “heal” me.
God never promised any of us a life on earth without sorrow or struggle.
If I am struggling to adapt to the progression of one of my illnesses or injuries, I may ask for prayers of strength. Or I may ask for prayers to reveal resources to make living with a particular pain a little easier.
You may wonder I don’t ask for prayers of healing. To be honest, it feels weird and selfish. Why would God heal me and not the other millions of people suffering from the same illnesses? I pray for a cure, but not to be individually cured.
Sometimes someone decides to make you their pray-to-heal project. And when they do, they plow right over your right to privacy. I guess they feel that if they are making an effort to heal you through prayer, they deserve to know your life story and everything that is wrong with you.
It can be frustrating to have a group or an entire congregation praying for your health because they expect results. And they WATCH for them! Then when it doesn’t happen, they say things like, “We are still praying for you,” “We aren’t giving up.” While that may sound innocent and nice, it feels more like a reminder that you are not good enough.
Will This Wheelchair User Ever Return To Church?
I don’t know.
I would love to because I really do miss worshipping in person. And while I do not expect perfection, attending church should not be more painful than a day at Disneyland.
Speaking of Disneyland, churches and anyone who values their disabled visitors/members/customers could learn a lesson or two from them. Disneyland expects the disabled to visit, is prepared for us, provides accessibility like no other, and accepts us as we are.
How does your church rate in the realm of accessibility?