Canon Dennis Dolloff was put in a wheelchair 38 years ago, after being struck by a drunk driver. But his disability didn’t stop him from wanting to be a priest.
When he was ordained six years later, in 1985, he became, at least to his knowledge, the first person in the Anglican church worldwide to have been priested in a wheelchair.
Dolloff says his experiences with the church as a disabled person have been mixed. On the one hand, he encountered skepticism from some quarters when he first expressed interest in being a priest, and people have not always been as accommodating to his condition, he says, as he might have hoped.
Once, at a service held in a lecture theatre during a clergy conference, he ended up missing out on communion. The bread and wine were being served at the bottom of the theatre, but he was unable to move from his wheelchair at the top.
“I just couldn’t get there, and they didn’t bring communion—they just forgot,” he says.
On the other hand, Dolloff says he also got a lot of support from many people, some of it at key points in his career. During his pre-postulancy interview with then-Bishop of Toronto Lewis Garnsworthy, the bishop seemed undaunted by Dolloff’s disability.
Garnsworthy said, “If you can show me that you have a calling, then I guess it’s my job to find you a job,” Dolloff recalls.
The experiences of the Rev. Karen Pitt, a long-time friend, have not been so mixed. Pitt, who is in a wheelchair most of the time because of arthritis and a number of other conditions that cause her chronic pain, left the Anglican church for the Community Catholic Church of Canada (formerly the Old Catholic Church, a group of parishes that broke away from the Roman Catholic Church in the 19th century) because she believes the church treated her unfairly.
About a year ago, reflecting on the varied nature of their own experiences, and those of other disabled churchgoers they knew, Pitt and Dolloff hit upon the idea of doing a study on disabilities and the church. They hoped to raise awareness of disabilities-related issues in the church by surveying Anglicans on their experiences and opinions. Now, with the survey online and open to anyone who wants to take part, a crucial phase of the project has begun.
The survey has two parts: one, intended for disabled churchgoers, that asks them to describe and rate their experience; and another for church members without disabilities asking them to describe and assess their church’s policies and practices on disabilities and accessibility.
Dolloff and Pitt plan to put the information they collect in the survey into a publishable report of some kind, Dolloff says—either a strictly research-based article or an essay that also describes some of the personal experiences of disabled people. They plan to release the report, he says, this fall or later.