ADA should apply to all areas

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The age-old argument of church-versus-state has gotten a lot of media attention lately with the passage of Proposition 8 in California. While present attention is focused on this dichotomy regarding gay marriage, other aspects of the debate often go unnoticed.

My sister and I both have Spinal Muscular Atrophy, a neuromuscular disease. Because of this, we’ve been in wheelchairs since about the age of three. Coming to Carnegie Mellon was a huge adjustment for me — I’d never lived away from home, and was worried about accessibility on campus. Fortunately, everyone was very accommodating, and soon, I felt just as comfortable getting around here as I did at home.

So when my sister started at Duquesne University this year, I was confident that things would go just as smoothly. I should’ve known right away, though, that things wouldn’t work out quite so easily for her: Just to get into the office where we were meeting to visit the campus, the only way to enter was up a flight of stairs, or by charging up a steep, grassy hill. As steps and wheelchairs don’t mix so well, we chose the latter. We were later showed the handicapped entrance to the building — it was out of the way, but it did exist.

The university is willing to make accommodations — but has its limits. Any major changes to buildings would wait until the entire building was renovated, which probably won’t happen until long after my sister graduates.

But a few weeks ago, when thinking about where she’ll live next year, my family stumbled across interesting information from a lawyer at the Disability Rights Network of Pennsylvania. Duquesne, as a Catholic college (and thus a “religious entity”), is exempt from some the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) standards.

I was floored by this news. Duquesne has never acknowledged this fact. There’s still the possibility that it will work closely with my sister to help implement all the changes she requested. Regardless, it’s not right that a religiously affiliated university is not legally responsible for providing accessible living situation.

Taking a broader look, though, I wonder about all “religious entities” being exempt from the ADA. I don’t think the Catholic Church is in the position right now to alienate more minority groups. By exempting themselves from the law, indicating that churches (or church-run universities) don’t have to be accessible to all, the Church is implying that people with disabilities are second-class citizens and not a priority in terms of church attendance and involvement.

I’m sorry; did I make up the story from the Bible where Jesus welcomed a man who couldn’t walk after the man was lowered in through the ceiling because he couldn’t get in through the front door? Ignoring the standards of the ADA is misaligned with the actual goals of the church — to be welcoming and understanding of all.

Religion is supposed to hold followers to higher standards, and Christians are supposed to model themselves after Jesus, who preached love for everyone more than anything else. I’m pretty sure that His idea of showing the love wasn’t by keeping people out, whether literally by a steep flight of stairs, or figuratively by making them less welcome — especially on an urban, university campus.