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Unitarian Universalists resolve to fight ableism highlighted by pandemic

'You get a bunch of 'UUs' committed to systemic change, and things start to happen,' said one drafter of the new anti-ableism commitment.

Photo by Yomex Owo/Unsplash/Creative Commons

(RNS) — In a step that marks the rise of ableism — discrimination against disabled people — as a core concern of many faith communities, the Unitarian Universalist Association recently announced that they would dedicate more funding and staff toward advancing disability justice.

“We recognize that ableism is broadly present within UU institutions and settings and the wider world,” said a memorandum of understanding released Oct. 19 and signed by UUA leaders and representatives from EqUUal Access, a Unitarian Universalist organization. “We affirm that the framework of disability justice can move us toward a goal of collective liberation.”

The memorandum said the UUA would designate at least $25,000 toward EqUUal Access each fiscal year and support staffing for the group. It would also add staff dedicated to disability to its own public advocacy team.

EqUUal Access and the association pledged to co-sponsor events over the next five years and work toward, according to the memorandum, “a rich, healthy and whole relationship between the two organizations, recognizing the ongoing need to address the harm caused from past breaches and failures of relationship.”

Carey McDonald, executive vice president of the UUA, told Religion News Service that the new memorandum comes as the COVID-19 pandemic revealed the urgent need to integrate anti-ableism into the practices, technologies, spaces and theologies of faith groups.  

“We saw the disparate impact for folks who are disabled and have other types of medical vulnerabilities in the pandemic. So clearly that was a part of the way that we talked about moving to a virtual church and trying to protect vulnerable people in our community. I think it really accelerated this work,” McDonald said.

EqUUal Access logo. Courtesy image

EqUUal Access logo. Courtesy image

The pandemic has seemingly caused a wide range of faith communities to take anti-ableism more seriously. As houses of worship pivoted to virtual alternatives to protect the health of all their members, many disabled advocates challenged faith leaders to make accessibility a priority at all times. 

McDonald told RNS that when UU congregations reinvented themselves to offer online worship, it allowed “a whole new set of folks to participate in the community who weren’t able to do that because of physical and transportation issues, because of vulnerability issues, because of micro-aggressions they experience just being in the world.” 

The memorandum mirrors commitments the UUA has made in recent years about anti-racism and multiculturalism.

Founded in 1961 as a merger of the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America, the association represents more than 1,000 Unitarian Universalist congregations in the United States, which are united by progressive values, rather than a unified doctrine. UU’s are inspired by teachings from a variety of wisdom traditions, from atheism to Islam. 

According to McDonald, who was involved in creating the memorandum, Unitarian Universalists have been working to confront some of its troubling history when it comes to disability.

“In the eugenics movements of 100 years ago, there were a number of quite prominent Unitarians and that’s one of our most egregious historical examples. And there’s a whole related set of conversations we’re having about reparations in our faith community,” McDonald told Religion News Service.

RELATED: Religious groups mustn’t stall on accessibility, disability activists say

The association’s Accessibility and Inclusion Ministry was active from roughly 2015 until June of this year, offering congregations a certification as inclusive and providing anti-ableist resources. But its leaders, all volunteers, began looking for a new approach.

“For the congregations that did get involved in it, it did help produce real change for the congregations both in terms of access and in terms of attitudes and dismantling ableism,” said Suzanne Fast, an ordained UU minister who works with EqUUal Access. “The thing was, there were not very many congregations who took on that commitment, and part of that I think had to do with the foundational work not being there.”

“We were asking, why were we, a small group of volunteers, doing this?” asked Fast. “This was work that in whatever form it ended up taking, was really work that the association needed to be doing.”

With the new memorandum, UUA plans to take a more active role in promoting disability justice, in part by making the Accessibility and Inclusion Ministry’s resources more readily available to UU congregations. 

“This is really a new beginning,” said McDonald. “This is a commitment to a lot more future work. And it’s not always a commitment that has been as strong within the UUA.”

For her part, Fast is optimistic.

“You get a bunch of ‘UUs’ committed to systemic change, and things start to happen.”

RELATED: 10 ways to make your worship space less ableist

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