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The Accessible Altar Podcast: How and Why We Host Such Conversations

Solidarity for disabled/chronically ill people of faith and a resource for ministers
by Robyn King | July 26, 2022

The beginning

I was home from University and the prayer for the sick seemed wrong. At the time I’d had one of my three brain surgeries and was in the middle of a transition away from my healthy childhood to my chronically ill and disabled adulthood. I was also in the ordination process. I don’t remember what in the wording of the prayer provoked the sense of wrong-ness. I hung around until the end of coffee hour and brought it up to my childhood priest. I remember fumbling to find words to express that the prayer had excluded my experience of illness that lasted, that was treatable but not curable. I remember being brushed off. It’s a memory that has stuck with me because I left feeling alone.

Almost two decades later, I was on the phone with a friend from seminary asking for a partner in doing something about the lack of awareness in the Church about disabled and chronically ill experiences. That experience in University wasn’t the first thing on my mind then, but I had years of cringing through sermons about healing and mentally rewriting prayers for illness. Plus it was the first year of the pandemic and we were both watching churches we love not respond to a worldwide assertion that “the elderly and sick needed to worry.” We knew that the sick meant the disabled, a group of people found in every demographic. We also knew it meant about a quarter of the faithful people in our pews and across the church (disability statistics for North America indicate that between 20-26% of people have been diagnosed with a disability, per the CDC and StatsCan).

Centering disabled people

That phone call turned into more phone and zoom calls, twitter DM’s, and shared documents drafting ideas and goals, and our podcast, “The Accessible Altar,” launched a year later. We intentionally situated ourselves at the intersection of faith and disability to keep our scope broad. Disability/chronic illness is a broad and varied community. My co-host and I come from two different aspects of it and yet we have so many similar experiences of ableism and frustration. Instead of a focus on a particular diagnosis or aspect of disability, we wanted the freedom to discuss any of the many things that are connected to faith and disability. This means theology, disability 101, and the Bible (we did an online 5 week disabled Bible study in May), alongside conversations with disabled/chronically ill people.

One of our policies is that everyone has the right to edit themselves after we record. So if a guest says something they don’t want shared beyond the three of us in the conversation, we will take that out. This does help relax all of us by knowing we don’t have to be perfect at every moment. It’s also a response to the many ways disabled people’s lives and stories are often told to diminish the agency and complexity of the disabled person. Think for a minute how many headlines you’ve seen about disability that are about the disabled person and how many are centered on the generosity or good acts of their friends, family, or community. 

In some ways being a podcast is an outgrowth of our desire to center disabled people. We get to invite listeners to meet disabled people as themselves. Not as recommendations or words, but as a voice that speaks about diagnosis and joys and life and struggles. One of our recurring exchanges during the editing phase is about not taking out parts of the conversation that offer insight into the life of a guest beyond their faith or disability. We routinely agree that it’s important to share disabled joy and disabled ordinariness.  

The conversations 

As I write this, we just published our 12th full episode. We’ve talked about The Disabled God, a disability theology classic, about ME/CFS, about service animals, about autism, about the Book of Common Prayer and its ableism. The truth is that sometimes we’ve had a plan or a theme (episodes 7, 8, and 9 are connected to the pandemic), while other times we’ve been inspired by recent conversations or stories or, as a new podcast, people we thought would probably say yes. We were also approached by people who suggested episode ideas.  

Being approached with episode ideas was amazing. We are aware that although our disabled experiences are different, we are both white, ordained in the Episcopal/Anglican tradition, [cis] women. Disability is broader than the two of us, the conversations we’ve had, or even the list of potential topics we have. Which makes sense. Disability is the largest minority and it intersects with every other minority. We want people to help us share parts of faith and disability that we either don’t know about or don’t know who to invite to help us share.

After every conversation we invite listeners to find local conversation partners to talk with about faith and disability. We know you have to listen to the disabled/chronically ill people in your life to learn their stories and how you can help dismantle the ableism they experience. While the ableism of society and the Church does create common and similar experiences, we also know that what is helpful to one disabled person may be meaningless or even unhelpful to another (this is called competing access).  In some cases it may take several conversations before a Church with less ableism can be dreamed by either person.

A Church without ableism

I don’t think anyone is in ministry to create inaccessible worship practices and spaces. But ableism is deeply entrenched in our society. If you have ever gone searching for disability theology, hopefully you have come across Nancy Eiesland’s The Disabled God. It’s arguably the foundational work in disability theology (and the topic of our sixth episode). In it Eiesland places disability at the core of the resurrection by describing Christ’s resurrected body, with its scars and impairments as a disabled body, making God a Disabled God. Taking this seriously means that there must be a Church, a gathering of God’s beloved for worship, that is without, or at least working to dismantle, the sins of ableism.  

Our once-a-month podcast is trying to be a place of solidarity for disabled/chronically ill people of faith and a resource for ministers who want to begin unworking their own and their church’s ableism. We want to offer other disabled voices to the person wondering if they are the only one. It can be intensely isolating to be a disabled Christian. We want to offer language and theology and a disabled lens on the Bible and Christian tradition to people who, as we both have, cringe when that Bible passage is read or preached on, who tense during certain prayers.  

I now know about and have access to works by several different people that my University self would have benefitted from having before or after that conversation with my priest. I can only wonder about what might have happened next if I could have gone home and sent them a link to our episode discussing The Disabled God. But I know I would have felt less alone.

Explore disability theology and community

Listen:

The Accessible Altar podcast

The Mad and Crip Theology podcast (Part of The Canadian Journal of Theology, Mental Health and Disability)

Read: 

The Disabled God by Nancy Eiesland

The Bible, Disability, and The Church by Amos Yong

Disability and the Way of Jesus: Holistic Healing in the Gospels and the Church by Bethany McKinney Fox

My Body is Not a Prayer Request by Amy Kenny – excerpt

Engage:

On any social media channel look for hashtags about disability or a diagnosis and watch the conversation for a bit before participating.

About the Author

Robyn King

The Reverend Robyn King lives in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada where she is a parish priest. She and her spouse have a 1 year old puppy, Codex, and two cats, Amethyst and Turquoise. She’s a slow knitter, a fan of cider (especially made with apples off their tree) and craft beer, and plays D&D. She jokes about spending too much time in doctor’s offices but only because it’s true.

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