On Friday evening, my friend Ellen Painter Dollar, a writer who specializes in religion and disability, went to the new Hartford, Conn., LDS temple for a tour before its dedication.
She never did get to see the inside.
Here’s what happened, in Ellen’s own words in a letter to the temple presidency:
I have a genetic bone disorder and use a cane for mobility. You require visitors to put coverings over their shoes to keep your floors from getting dirty and damaged from all the visitors. I explained to a man who greeted us that the covers would make the bottom of my shoes too slippery and asked if I could go in without the covers.
I realize that the risk of slipping may seem minimal to many people, but I have compromised balance and fragile bones, and it doesn’t take more than a tiny slip to make me fall. I’ve had 40-plus broken bones in my 48 years of life, and I’m sure you agree that it would have been unfortunate if I slipped and hurt myself in your Temple.
The first man I asked said no, and also said, “We can put you in a wheelchair,” an offer that I declined. When he realized I was going to leave without taking the tour, he said he’d ask someone else if an exception could be made.
The whole conversation was being watched intently by the other hosts sitting in a row to offer shoe coverings; I looked up and saw a line of a dozen silent faces staring at me. That’s when I realized this was probably not going to end well.
The first man took me to the head of the line, to an older man who seemed to have some authority, and asked if I could go in without shoe covers for my safety. The second man looked me in the eye, shrugged, and said, “No, we can’t allow that. But we can put you in a wheelchair.”
PUT me in a wheelchair. I can’t quite decide which part of this whole thing was most upsetting, but the fact that the phrase, “we can/we’d like to/we need to PUT YOU in a wheelchair” was repeated several times may be it. This repeated phrase made me feel like an object to be put wherever is most convenient for Temple volunteers and your clean floors.
At some point, one of the men said, “I’ll push you in the wheelchair if you want.” (I didn’t – I know how to navigate in a wheelchair, and this suggestion further robbed me of my own agency and made me feel even more like a thing to be literally pushed around, rather than a person with 48 years worth of knowledge about my own mobility.)
Another man kept saying, “Please just go in a wheelchair,” which under the circumstances came across more like, “Please just sit down and stop being difficult.” I said I wasn’t interested in using a wheelchair, that I’d like to and am well able to walk, but can’t do so safely with covers on my shoes.
I ultimately told my husband and son to go on the tour without me, and went to wait for them in the car.
I cringed when I read this story. This is my friend, and as a Mormon I would hope for her to have a positive experience of the new LDS temple opening in her community. Instead, what she received was the message that she and her cane were not welcome.
At least one person realized that the way the temple volunteers had handled the situation was wrong:
The only redeeming moment was when a man (his name was Paul) who heard what happened came to apologize. It appeared that he and another young man . . . were the only two people who understood that the message I received loud and clear was that I’m not welcome, that I and my safety, my bodily autonomy, and my self-awareness of what I need to be safe are less important than clean floors, and that I need to be “put” somewhere I don’t want or need to be, solely for other people’s convenience and priorities.
Paul said he’d take me in for a tour, regardless of the rules, but by this point I was angry and humiliated and just wanted to go home. I explained that I work really hard, through physical therapy and exercise, to be strong enough not to use a wheelchair at this point in my life, and that I and every religion I’m familiar with consider people to be more important than floors—a point that Paul conceded. I felt bad for him—he so clearly wanted to make things better, to make up for how badly his fellow church members treated me, but by that point it was too late.
As a person without physical limitations, I take it for granted that I can walk where I want to, open doors, navigate stairs, etc. But I’ve learned a lot from listening to Ellen and other people with physical disabilities: Don’t demonize them as being “other,” and by the same token, don’t lionize them as superheroes, which is just another way of robbing them of common humanity and making them the “other.” They’re just folks.
Also, don’t assume that you know what they need. Just. Listen.
It’s the “just listen” part of Ellen’s experience at the temple I find so troubling. How is it that these good people couldn’t see past preserving their carpets to understand that there is no one-size-fits-all solution for individuals with disabilities? Ellen gets around just fine with a cane and some understanding of her situation. She does not need a wheelchair at this point in her life – a freedom that is hard-won.
Was this an isolated incident? I’d love to think so, but experience tells me otherwise. I’ve never been in an LDS meeting where we had substantive training on how to accommodate individuals with disabilities. Not once. Yes, it’s true that we’re an all-volunteer church, and that makes it difficult; it’s not like we have an ordained clergy who get sensitivity training and then pass that knowledge down to the hoi polloi. There are going to be gaps in Mormons’ knowledge of how to accommodate people with disabilities who come to our church buildings. But there should not be chasms.
Real hospitality is to welcome strangers as they are — not attired as we would have them be, or where we’re able to “put” them in boxes that make us feel more comfortable. Real hospitality is to welcome the stranger as Christ. As spirituality writer Robert Benson explains it in A Good Life:
Benedict calls us to a constant awareness that those who enter our world are all to be treated as though they were the Christ. He calls us to a posture, a way of seeing and of welcoming and of serving that is rooted in the sense of adoration of the Christ that is present in us all.
He calls for particular honor and care to be given to the poor, the sick, the needy, the guest, and the pilgrims. And who among us, who among those we know, who among those we shall meet tomorrow is not some or all or each at some time or all of the time?