Who Belongs?

Note: as I process my experience from Rich’s Ride I’ve been writing some of my thoughts about accessibility and inclusion. Previous articles include Ain’t No Normal and An Able Bodied World?

One of the surprises we encountered during Rich’s Ride was a church with a designated seating area for folks with “special needs.”

We weren’t offered a choice. Although I could have moved a chair and easily parked anywhere in the auditorium, we were identified as “special” and guided to our proper spot. In this section we sat with other folks in wheelchairs, a few older people using walkers, autistic individuals, and others with less obvious challenges.

As guests, we chose to comply, but it felt really awkward. I wondered about the assumptions behind the conclusion that grouping us together— toward the back at the far side of the large auditorium—was a good policy?

I assume that whoever chose this arrangement meant well. I can only speculate about specifics, but I’m sure the intent was to be kind and helpful. Perhaps they wished to make things easier, to help us feel more comfortable or less conspicuous. Maybe they thought we might need extra assistance. I don’t know.

What’s your response to this arrangement?

Regardless of intentions, the moment I entered I received a clear message: YOU’RE DIFFERENT.

Without even speaking to me someone decided I wasn’t capable of choosing my own seat. I wasn’t allowed to interact with the “normal” people. I was categorized, labeled, and shuffled off to the side.

I clearly didn’t fully belong.

I’m sure that wasn’t the goal. Nobody meant to isolate us and give the impression that we were sort of “in the way.”

I couldn’t help wondering about a wheelchair user taking the risk to enter church for the first time. Would he experience a sense of fellowship? Would he believe that he has a purpose, that he’s uniquely gifted by God, that the church exists to equip and support him in using those gifts?

Or would he feel marginalized and unwelcome? Would he sense, as I did, that he didn’t fully belong?

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