25 years of ADA: A bishop reflects on faith community role

Editor's note: Congregations across the country and in the Florida Conference search for new ways to make disciples with disabilities feel welcome and included in the church family. Although churches are exempt from the ADA, the anniversary of the law is a good time to reflect on the biblical mandate to minister to and share God's word with everyone.

I was appointed to serve Christ UMC of the Deaf in Baltimore in 1988. This was two years before the Americans with Disabilities Act became U.S. law. Prior to the ADA law, telecommunication for Deaf and hard-of-hearing Americans was difficult. One of the most important parts of the law was equal access to communication.

Deaf people have long had telephone devices that they used to type words into the phone, with the cradle of one of those old fashioned phones lying at the top of the device.  Through the wonders of technology back then two people with TTY’s (“teletype” as they were called) could communicate with English words back and forth using this device.  However not everyone had a TTY or a phone line and Deaf people could not talk to just anyone, like hearing people can. That is where I got a lot of requests for “favors” from my members. I had a TTY, of course, and this is how it went:

Bishop Peggy Johnson headshot
"God does not exempt us from including our brothers and sisters with disabilities in our churches and ministries."
– Bishop Peggy Johnson

“Please call my dentist.  I have to be seen as soon as possible.”  So I would call the dentist and say, “Hello, I am calling for Jane Doe and she is Deaf and needs to be seen soon.”  The dentist’s secretary would give me a date and time the next day.  I would call the Deaf person back and they would say, “I can’t wait that long. Please, I must be seen today." I would call back and negotiate a better time, and it went on and on. About 25 minutes and four phone calls later, the Deaf person had a dental appointment.

In 1990, when the ADA bill was signed into law, a relay system was devised so that a Deaf person wanting to talk to a hearing person who did not have a TTY could call a special number, and a hearing operator with access to two phone lines would type for the Deaf person and speak for the hearing person. A process that used to take 25 minutes now took two minutes.

This relay service is free to all consumers, and every state has one.  Revenue for this service comes from a surcharge on every phone bill.  Hearing people can call Deaf people as well.  The access number for both Deaf and hearing is 711.

Deaf people with low income could apply for a free TTY; and in some states people who could not afford a monthly phone bill could get a greatly reduced fee. This opened the world for Deaf people. They could call whomever they wanted.  They could order a cake from the grocery store.  They could "talk" to their family members who did not have a TTY.  They could do anything a hearing person could do on a phone. Best of all, it was totally confidential. In the past, when I made phone calls for people, I was privy to their private information or sensitive health issues. Imagine if all of your personal business had to be known by a friend or family member who could hear?

The ADA Law sets Deaf people free. Nowadays there is a relay service that has video phone capabilities. The operator/interpreter can be seen on a computer or TV monitor. They sign for the Deaf consumer and speak into a headset for the hearing people. This is even faster and far more language-appropriate for people who use American Sign Language as their primary mode of communication.

The ADA Law requires physical accessibility for people with mobility or visual challenges, and it includes a plethora of laws that provide equal opportunity for education, recreation, employment and transportation.  It has been said that the ADA gave the largest U.S. minority group its rights. 

It has not all been easy. There have been numerous legal challenges to this law and the meaning of the term “reasonable accommodations.”  As a nation we are not where we need to be in terms of employment and physical accommodations.  Many of our laws that provide subsidies for people with disabilities need to be studied further. Some need to be changed, so that if a person with a disability gets a job, their benefits are not lost and then all but impossible to get back should the job not work out.  We as a nation are going onto perfection.  Worldwide disability rights are a huge challenge.

The church is exempt from following the ADA law because of the “separation of church and state.”  But of course, God does not exempt us from including our brothers and sisters with disabilities in our churches and ministries.  People with disabilities are an important part of the Body of Christ, with plenty of gifts and graces for ministry. 

I urge you to find new ways every year to improve your church’s accessibility – be it physical or attitudinal. Your church can sign onto the new Faith Community Proclamation in honor of the 25th anniversary of the signing of the ADA law.  The ADA website is a good place to make a commitment to continue the work of accessibility and advocacy; but there are additional resources available as well.  The address is www.adaanniversary.org 

Congratulations, ADA Law!  You’ve come a long way. Now the best is yet to come!

To see Bishop Johnson's blog in its entirety, click here.

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