Jennifer Szweda Jordan (00:03):
Can people with disabilities join able-bodied worshipers at their chosen faith communities? That's what reporter Meg St-Esprit set out to learn from Pittsburgh area religious leaders and families. I'm Jennifer Szweda Jordan with Unabridged Press. Meg joins me today for this episode of ADA at 30: Accessibility in Pittsburgh. This is a companion podcast, to our reporting collaboration with PublicSource, found at adapittsburgh.com. You'll find Meg's full report there and lots of other great reporting and video content.
Jennifer Szweda Jordan (00:38):
Meg St-Esprit (00:39):
Jennifer Szweda Jordan (00:39):
What was it like for you to report this story, as a person of faith?
Meg St-Esprit (00:45):
It was really interesting because as an able-bodied person without any disabilities, it wasn't something I think I had thought about much. We do have children with special needs, but not so much from an accessibility standpoint had we had to consider our house of worship. As I began to talk to different families, some who were limited from worship because of disability, others who felt very included in their congregations, it really opened up for me a whole other facet to faith that I really hadn't thought about as much as I probably should have.
Meg St-Esprit (01:25):
It was really interesting to talk to the different congregations in a variety of different belief systems to see how they work to include members with disability and the areas that they all feel that they could improve.
Jennifer Szweda Jordan (01:39):
Do you want to maybe provide just a little bit of a synopsis of what you went for and what you came up with?
Meg St-Esprit (01:46):
Sure. So I set out to look at a diverse variety of churches, synagogues, mosques, et cetera, across the Pittsburgh area. I wanted to make sure that we talked to congregations from all backgrounds. I found that all of them have a desire to be inclusive, but they don't always necessarily have A, either the resources, financially, as far as building accessibility, or they don't always have quite the understanding of what is needed.
Meg St-Esprit (02:16):
I talked to families who access these programs, as well as the programs themselves. And even some of the families I spoke to acknowledge that these houses of worship are trying, clearly their heart is in the right place, but with such a wide range of disability and needs it's really hard to hit every single need that could arise. So some families still feel left out, even when these houses of worship are making an effort. So it's really an evolving, complicated topic.
Jennifer Szweda Jordan (02:51):
And like you say, what were some of the disabilities you were looking at? Was it all physical?
Meg St-Esprit (02:56):
No, I definitely looked at a wide range. We interviewed a fabulous AME Zion church in Homewood that is doing a lot for children that have sensory needs, on the autism spectrum, different things like that. And then it was very interesting because they also have a large segment of their congregation that is elderly. So they were able to talk about the fabulous things they're doing as far as social and emotional needs, but the fact that their very old building is hard to make accessible for their elderly population. So they kind of had some things on both ends of the scale that they were, things they want to improve and things that they're really proud of.
Meg St-Esprit (03:37):
I talked to a family whose child has multiple cognitive and physical disabilities, about how hard it really is just to find, they're a Christian family, the perfect program for them. They have moved around to a couple of different congregations, and now, they haven't actually been to church in almost a year, just because of the difficulty of it. So that was very eye-opening. And they did acknowledge that it's not for lack of programs trying to accommodate them, it's just their child's needs are very unique.
Meg St-Esprit (04:10):
I also talked to the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh. I talked to a parent in the congregation whose child has Down syndrome, and they had a really unique view on how in the immigrant population that makes up the Islamic population of Pittsburgh, disabilities are viewed very differently in some of the small villages and other countries where their congregants come from. So rather than having separate programs, there's a much more, they feel, inclusive atmosphere to the mosques, where everyone is just come as they are, and they're accepted and their needs are woven into the daily activities.
Jennifer Szweda Jordan (04:53):
Yeah. That's so interesting because there are multiple prayer times. I mean, I don't know, as a Catholic, I think of church as the once a week thing, or maybe some of us go daily. But that coming and going is really, as part of a community of faith, is a really neat opportunity to have multiple types of opportunities to provide accessibility.
Meg St-Esprit (05:18):
Right. And you know, that was one thing that the pandemic kind of added to every congregation I spoke to, it was an added layer of accessibility. People who can't necessarily get there either because they're immunocompromised. So I mean, even without a pandemic, many families or individuals with disabilities are avoiding congregant worship through the winter months because of the flu season and things like that, or there's transportation issues.
Meg St-Esprit (05:47):
So a lot of the congregations going online really improved accessibility for this season. And many of the congregations also hope to be able to continue online access, even when they're able to meet back in person again, just because it did allow people to connect who maybe couldn't otherwise.
Jennifer Szweda Jordan (06:07):
Yeah. I've found that ... I know you know that I work with Emmaus Community of Pittsburgh as a direct support provider, and have really enjoyed attending Mass with them sometimes online. That's something because of transportation and everything, we don't always do together. Like maybe once a year, we go to Mass together as a community, but it's a neat opportunity. I've been saying my new favorite place of worship is my living room with a cup of tea. A little irreverent, but I mean why would God not want me to sit around with a cup of tea and feel at home?
Meg St-Esprit (06:43):
Well, absolutely. And you know, we have four kids, the oldest is eight, the youngest is almost two. I mean, getting to church on a weekend, we go to Allegheny Center Alliance on the North Side, which is an amazing church that I think has really great accessibility options, but just the logistics of getting our family there is exhausting. So it is kind of nice to just be like, "Let's turn on Pastor Alan and Pastor Rock and sit here in our pajamas."
Meg St-Esprit (07:09):
But I really miss, more than the congregant worship on Sundays, I miss the small groups and the brunches and that kind of connection stuff. I think that's what a lot of people I spoke to are missing also. It's very hard for the disabled community, which is higher risk during the pandemic…. as some of the people I've talked to have said. They're missing out on those smaller connections, aside from the large body worship.
Jennifer Szweda Jordan (07:34):
You and I had talked about this, I think early on, but I was so stunned when I learned, I think in the last year or so, that Christians led by a Catholic lawyer got houses of worship exempted from the Americans with Disabilities Act. The reasoning was, I believe, there's the church and state separation, like we don't have to do this. And there was the claim of costs, which may have been a reality, you know? And it is a reality, right? But it's still ... I find it just kind of an embarrassment of my faith, that anybody would argue against accessibility, which I think is at the core of faith, community and accessibility. I don't know. Were you familiar with that before you started reporting?
Meg St-Esprit (08:23):
I knew that they were exempt, but I wasn't sure exactly what it meant. When I dug into it, it is really complicated because there's parts of the ADA that cover physical accessibility, there's parts that cover employment. It really gets into some muddy waters because there's still building code.
Meg St-Esprit (08:41):
I talked to an architect who focuses on houses of worship in the Pittsburgh area and he helped me understand every time a church, or place, house of worship does any type of remodeling, then they have to use 20% of their budget to update according to the accessibility guidelines that fall under the building code. So a lot of the houses of worship are becoming slightly more accessible, but it also, it has some, I don't want to call them loopholes, but they might be able to build an elevator shaft, but they don't have to put an elevator in it.
Jennifer Szweda Jordan (09:18):
Meg St-Esprit (09:19):
But he did also say, which I thought was encouraging, that most of their clients truly want to be accessible. It's just trying to figure out ... Most, many, houses of worship have a small budget. Pittsburgh has a very, very high percentage of very old buildings that congregations are meeting in, and so unless you're building a new building from the ground up, it's definitely tricky. I know our church has a stair lift that is a little bit rickety, but it's hard to fit that into a building that's a hundred plus years old. I know many places are struggling with that.
Meg St-Esprit (9:55):
The Islamic Center of Pittsburgh talked to me about how to access their lower level, they'd had consultation on it and it's difficult. So yeah, I think it's sad, and as you said, seems the antithesis of faith, to try to get exempt from it. But I also think it's encouraging that even when they're exempt, congregations want to be accessible anyways, so that's why I feel like it is a little bit muddy.
Jennifer Szweda Jordan (10:18):
Yeah. And we kind of touched on the special needs that aren't physical disabilities. In my church, there is a boy who's very vocal throughout mass and he and siblings walk around a lot. I think a lot about how to address that. I don't know the answers. As Catholics, we stand up and sit down a lot, and I've read that that is confusing to a kid. Or, you know, say, "Oh, we're standing up? We're going. Oh, no. We're sitting back down. Now we're kneeling. What are we doing?" Those gestures are confusing.
Meg St-Esprit (11:00):
Absolutely. I've thought about that as well. Our church has a children's ministry that is separate from the main service, as a lot of Protestant churches do. They have a buddy program, sort of like a one-on-one program for children with special needs or disability, which works in most cases. But I know that there's some children that are in the service with their parents because either they're not comfortable or it doesn't work for them.
Meg St-Esprit (11:28):
It is just so complicated to think about how do you serve everyone in a congregate space and make sure that everyone's needs are met? It could be really beautiful if we could find a way to incorporate it. I think that sometimes where our own selfish desires can kind of get in the way of a collectivist approach to the body of worship.
Jennifer Szweda Jordan (11:51):
I mean, a lot of us just want to get in and get out, right? We don't have time for figuring out what's going to work for this person, right? Just like check ... So that's, yeah, what I find really unfortunate, what I witness. I mean, I'm glad he's there, but I just think we could do better by him.
Meg St-Esprit (12:09):
I hear you.
Jennifer Szweda Jordan (12:10):
So I think this is a good conversation. Did you want to add anything else or talk about anything else? People can read the story to find out more about what you uncovered.
Meg St-Esprit (12:20):
Just remember that congregation literally means everyone together, a body of believers, congregant worship, and how you can meet every variety of needs. The other thing I think that families are really willing to talk about and many of them, and there's families that are in this story and families that are not that I spoke to that decided not to be involved, all of them said, or many of them said anyway, I shouldn't say all, nobody asked them, "What do you need specifically?"
Meg St-Esprit (12:51):
A couple of families said we just stopped showing up and no one checked to see why. So I think you might feel awkward about it, but if you notice someone's not there, just ask them why. And maybe there's a small thing you can do, or maybe there's a big overhaul that needs done so that it can be accessible for them.
Jennifer Szweda Jordan (13:10):
Yeah. Thank you.
Meg St-Esprit (13:12):
Jennifer Szweda Jordan (13:13):
You can read Meg St-Esprit's reporting on accessibility and Pittsburgh houses of worship at adapittsburgh.com. Published in collaboration with PublicSource. And we hope you'll continue listening to this series wherever you're hearing your podcasts. We have a companion episode to our conversation about houses of worship in which we talk to people with disabilities about their personal spiritual journeys. I'm Jennifer Szweda Jordan from Unabridged Press. This program's production received assistance from the Center for Media Innovation at Point Park University, and is supported by the FISA Foundation. Thanks for listening.