At a time when the drive for better inclusion of a marginalized section of society (Persons with Disabilities) is gaining speed the world over, it is sad to witness religious institutions (by their very nature and calling supposed to be shining examples in this just cause) acting with apparent indifference.


Whether this is happening unintentionally or otherwise, I do not know. One thing I know: the situation calls for urgent redress.

In June last year, I was at the headquarter church of one the country’s leading Pentecostal denominations for Sunday worship service. It was my first time. Among the features that caught my attention on that first visit was the sheer size of the location, the state of the art equipment in use, the warm welcome of public relations staff, the fine show of opulence (children of the King are not supposed to be poor), and the generally conducive ambience. With these and more on ground, i was eager to settle down to quality time in Divine fellowship.

Alas, that wasn’t to be.


Fustration began when I made it clear to attendants that as a deaf person, I required sign language interpretation to easily assimilate spoken communication. In other words, without it, I couldn’t really benefit from the sermon and other parts of the service.


Ordinarily, one would expect the headquarter church of a denomination of such status to have ready arrangements to cater to the language needs of all kind of attendees at any given time. Also, it is a “no-brainer” that this mammoth religious organization has the capacity for that – and more. So, I was both surprised and disappointed to discover that in that audience numbering into  hundred of thousands, there couldn’t be found interpreting services for the deaf and hard of hearing. I will never forget the rollercoaster of emotions of  embarrassment, indignation, and disappointment I experienced that day.


The matter got more ridiculous when it became clear that even the ushers were not sure whether or not there was provision for such special need. I still recall an usher walking me almost the circumference of that expansive auditorium asking for, I will say, a nonexistent section for the Deaf.

At the end of the stress and embarrassment, all I got were some pacifying words.

Although it’s almost a year since that encounter, I am still trying to grasp why one couldn’t find a deaf person in that huge crowd of worshippers. Even if there was, there was no sure way to tell. Furthermore, the various responses and reactions clearly showed that these people are not used to having deaf brethren in their worship meetings. One may therefore understand why they appeared clueless in such situation.

Years earlier, I had a similar experience at a branch of same church where I again happened to be the lone deaf person. After much frustration, I somehow took the matter to the head pastor. Unfortunately, nothing concrete came out of it.

PERTINENT QUESTIONS

At this point, some pressing questions arise. Why, for example, was there no single deaf person in those congregations? Could it be that no deaf person is interested in worshipping there? I don’t think so. Again, could it be that the church inadvertently threw them out through non-chalant attitudes – no provision for their language needs, for example? As if to validate this reasoning, among the three or so top church names in the country, this is the only one of which I have heard practically nothing about a deaf section/ deaf persons. Oddly enough, a friend once said that this particular church has a policy of not accommodating deaf worshippers – insisting on the power of God to heal all infirmities. Well, I choose not to believe such outrageous claim until it is proven beyond doubt. My position is that in the mix of things is a lack of vital information, proper enlightenment and correct orientation that could have made a world of difference.

By beaming a searchlight on possible reasons for the marked absence of deaf brethren in that congregation of believers, we will understand that this kind of thing don’t just happen. It follows the law of cause and effect – some of which we may not know. From the known, I offer a fact: “It is unreasonable to expect a people whose unique communication needs have not been provided for to happy in, or want to be in any type of gathering – not the least, religious ones. I write from experience.

Let’s be clear about it, this unsavory non-inclusion of a disadvantaged minority in our worship places isn’t limited to one big name church. It cuts across churches, mosques, etc.

Nor is the case being made only for deaf persons and sign language interpreting services. No! It covers just about every cluster of People with Disabilities (PWDs) whose rights and human dignity are being denied/trampled on one way or the other. Consequently, there’s a steady build up of a disgruntled set of worshippers who feel ignored disrespected and insulted. This is a dangerous trend that needs to be checked.

What’s more, if we will see it for what it is, this subtle injustice stands in stark contrast to the spirit and letters of the holy writs of all the religions.

CHARTING THE WAY FORWARD

In recommending the way out of the present quagmire, we need to be fair.

“He that comes to the table of equity must come with clean hands”.

We need to acknowledge that this subject of inclusion is a knotty one – complex and complicated. It should be mentioned too, that either side could be at fault in this matter. Most often than not, the conflicts, dissatisfactions, blame trading and grudge bearing driving the “Inclusion narrative” have their root in a lack of enlightenment on the subject of disability, ignorance, ‘far off the mark' assumptions and speculations, differences in perspectives, poor awareness level, prejudice and other indices of human failings and  limitations.

Personally, I hold the belief that people are basically good (more so, from the context of places of worship where godliness and piety is the norm) and wouldn’t just go about hurting feelings and infringing on rights of PWDs. You see, when good humans derail and offend in this matter, it’s often because they don’t know how to navigate this rather tricky terrain, so rife with sensitive egos, stereotypes and fragile emotions. Notwithstanding, in law, as they say, ignorance is not an excuse. So, here’s the home truth: “our places of worship need to invest on getting educated and enlightened on the subject of Disability and PWDs. Both leaders and laity need it.

Expert knowledge and advice should be sought from Organizations of Persons with Disabilities (OPDs) and other reliable sources.

Recommendations should be implemented with efficiency.

Special trainings and seminars should be held.

There should be brainstorming sessions where experts in various fields of human endeavors bounce off ideas on the way forward.

An important caveat though: the people in the eye of the storm, namely, PWDs, should be carried along every step of the way.

Despite being a minority, the case of these marginalized persons is worth all due attention. And I’m convinced our religious stakeholders are fair-minded enough to grasp the substance of the parable of the shepherd with a hundred sheep leaving the ninety and nine to seek the one that went astray.

Enough of this subtle non-inclusion.