Church may create ‘envoy’ for people with disabilities: Hiltz

Some respondents to a recent survey on church and disabilities reported being made to feel unwelcome in their own parish because of their disability. Photo: Freedom Studio/Shutterstock
Published February 5, 2018

Archbishop Fred Hiltz, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, says he’s considering creating a new position to advance accessibility in the church, after being presented with a report describing numerous barriers – including exclusion and isolation – faced by Canadian Anglicans with disabilities.

“What I’m thinking about doing…is having a chat with someone I have in mind who might take on a kind of role as an envoy for people with disabilities,” Hiltz said. It would most likely be a volunteer position, he said.

Hiltz said the idea came to him after a meeting in November with Canon Dennis Dolloff, a retired Anglican priest, and the Rev. Karen Pitt, a priest ordained by the Community Catholic Church of Canada. The two met with Hiltz to present him a report on two online surveys Dolloff and Pitt launched last April, one intended for people with disabilities in the Anglican Church of Canada; the other for those without.

The report, authored by Pitt, recommends that the Anglican Church of Canada create a new part-time staff position “to advocate and educate the churches across Canada,” that could ideally be filled by a person with disabilities, and that it establish a “Council for Persons with Disabilities” as well as a work committee, for promoting the full inclusion of people with disabilities in the church.

It also commends a policy paper on disability released in 2011 by the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA), for highlighting, among other things, the attitudes often held toward  people with disabilities by members of society and of churches. The paper is of note partly because the ELCA’s counterpart in Canada, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada, is in full communion with the Anglican Church of Canada, the report states.

Barriers facing Anglicans with disabilities

The report describes numerous instances in which Anglicans with disabilities say they have felt excluded by the Anglican Church of Canada, and says that research on disability and accessibility in the church has been “very limited.” It states that there is in the church an “apathy to the inclusion of persons with disabilities,” reflected, for example, in a low level of awareness on the part of many church members of laws and church policies on accessibility.

Addressing the church, the report asks, “How effectively have you taken up the call to be ‘inclusive’ of persons with disabilities, including ‘effective’ policies and supportive framework that uphold these needs and enable the deep wounds of discrimination, exclusion and isolation to heal?”

The report identifies eight barriers facing Anglicans with disabilities, in the areas of attitudes, communication, physical accommodations, mental health and learning disabilities, transportation, vocations, social relations and policy.

Many church parishes, the report says, are reluctant to install physical accommodations—lifts and ramps, for example—because they “feel financially vulnerable,” with the result that such accommodations are at times not given a high priority. The report questions whether the national church has made enough funding available to make church buildings fully accessible, especially given—as one respondent commented—that accessibility is becoming increasingly important with the aging of the baby boomer generation.

Meanwhile, in making accommodations for people with disabilities, churches often don’t ask the opinions of these people themselves on what works, the report states. And yet, it says, “many persons with disabilities are willing and able to offer support and training to enable the [Anglican Church of Canada] to move forward.”

According to the report, there was a tendency for survey respondents with disabilities to report different experiences and expectations, depending on their age. The disabilities some people experience as a result of aging, it states, are related to social isolation and the inability to do what they could do before. But younger people with disabilities, it states, tend not to feel the same needs, and are more likely to want to be seen as “equal” church members, and “believe they have more to contribute.”

The report notes that disability includes more than  challenges with mobility, but sensory challenges such as deafness as well as psychiatric disability, for example. A number of respondents with these types of disabilities, it says, commented that the church did not seem to recognize the challenges they were facing.

The report claims that, because of a lack of accommodation in the training of candidates for the priesthood, “for persons with disabilities, visible or invisible, the trials and struggles are much greater” than they are for those without disabilities. Some respondents with disabilities, it said, reported that while they were at seminary, they were discouraged from seeking help from others.

“Is the training of candidates with disabilities to be ‘the same’ or equitably adapted to enable all those who have been assessed as having a vocational call to move forward equally?” the report asks.

The church, according to the report, should actively “help identify and encourage people with disabilities to attend seminary and enter ministries.”

According to the report, 15% of survey respondents were clergy with disabilities.

Hiltz said he found the report’s findings valuable and important, but he was not in a position to create a new paid position in the church, given the currently “strained” budget of General Synod. The volunteer eventually selected as envoy, he said, may or may not choose to have a council.

Hiltz said he would also bring the report to the attention of the national office’s general secretary and human resources manager, and of the House of Bishops when it meets this spring, asking them to read the report and consider whether any of the policies in dioceses or at the church’s national level need to be updated.

“It’s always a good thing when we have a report that calls us to review our current policy and to sharpen it, focus it, enhance it,” he said.

One of the things he appreciated most about the report, Hiltz said, was that it advanced a broader notion beyond visible disability, to include, for example, hearing and mental health challenges. This should serve as a reminder to churches that fully accommodating people with disabilities is more than just a matter of installing wheelchair ramps and accessible toilets, he said.

Hiltz confirmed he also paid a “modest amount” to Dolloff and Pitt for the work they had done researching and writing the report.

The report discusses some of the results of the surveys as of the end of October 2017, when 54 people had completed the first survey and 48 people the second. The survey for Anglicans with disabilities asks respondents about, among other things, how often they take part in church activities and what barriers they encounter; it also asks them to rate how satisfied they were with their ability to take part in these activities. The survey for church members without disabilities focuses on topics such as respondents’ awareness of disability law and the Anglican Church of Canada’s disability policy and their local church’s promotion and implementation of disability policy. Both surveys also invite comments at numerous points.

The report emphasizes the comments respondents provided about their own experience over numerical data because, Dolloff and Pitt say, they wanted the report to bring to readers the actual experiences of Anglicans with disabilities in Canada. The data that is included in the report, Dolloff says, is “almost ancillary to what we found, which is this sort of angst or suffering of people—who they are and what they are—in the church.”

‘Unwelcome in church’

Some respondents said they were made to feel unwelcome in their own church because of their disability. One said that, when a senior member of the parish board saw the pain in her face caused by the effort of trying to get to where communion was being served, “he came to me and said…that God would understand if I did not come to church anymore.” The respondent added, “I have not stepped into any Anglican church again.” Others reported being bullied on account of their disabilities. “People felt free to openly discriminate against me to the point someone became verbally abusive and actively interfered with my life in the church,” one respondent wrote. “If it weren’t for the kindness of other incumbents and so many other people, I would have left the [church].”

Church buildings need to become fully accessible-there’s no point in a church having a ramp, for example, if it doesn’t have an accessible toilet, and the altar is inaccessible to people who use wheelchairs, says Canon Dennis Dolloff, a retired Anglican priest. Photo: Ilia Torlin

Dolloff—who became, to his knowledge, the first person in the Anglican church worldwide to have been priested in a wheelchair when he was ordained in 1985—says the church should focus on improving accessibility in some key areas. For a start, church buildings need to become fully accessible—there’s no point in a church having a ramp, for example, if it doesn’t have an accessible toilet, and the altar in many churches is inaccessible to people who use wheelchairs. But church leaders, he says, also need to realize that people shouldn’t be considered unqualified to serve as priests because of their disability. They should also be more open inviting people with disabilities to take an active role in church services, he says—lighting candles, reading Scripture passages, carrying communion bread or other elements of the service.

“I think there are parishes that do better than others, but for the most part, if you’re in a church and you have a physical handicap, you’re denied the altar,” he says. But being asked to take part in services, would make an enormous difference, he says, in how people with disabilities see the church’s acceptance of them.

Pitt says she was “extremely pleased at the sensitive and supportive response” the primate gave their report. She’s concerned, she says, at the low level of awareness Anglicans seem to have of the church’s policy on disability, and that many still see making accommodations for people with disabilities as an act of charity, not a requirement.

She also believes, given that many Canadians suffer from a disability of one kind or another and that they often face discrimination, that disability should be one of the Anglican church’s stated social justice causes.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with more details from the report. 


  • Tali Folkins

    Tali Folkins joined the Anglican Journal in 2015 as staff writer, and has served as editor since October 2021. He has worked as a staff reporter for Law Times and the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal. His freelance writing credits include work for newspapers and magazines including The Globe and Mail and the former United Church Observer (now Broadview). He has a journalism degree from the University of King’s College and a master’s degree in Classics from Dalhousie University.

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