A Seat at the Table: Shirley Smith

Wednesday, March 31st, 2021

March is Disability Awareness Month. Suzanne Erb gives her story and tips on welcoming more people into church.

March is National Disability Awareness Month. Members of the diocesan committee, People for Disabilities, will be sharing their story and advice with you to welcome all people into church. This is from Shirley Smith. 

All are Welcome, says the sign at St. Peter’s Church Glenside.  There has been a determined effort throughout the years to make this statement a reality.  My road to this church began when I was stricken with the polio virus at the age of 12, which brought me to the Home of the Merciful Savior (HMS), a residential treatment center for polio patients.  There I received physical therapy and rehabilitation resulting in residual partial paralysis of both legs requiring the use of braces and crutches for ambulation.  At HMS there was a chapel where a supply minister from the local Episcopal church and seminarians from the nearby seminary held services, and I eventually became an Episcopalian, meeting and marrying a polio survivor, and a member of St. Peter’s Church. I became a Special Educational teacher at a Philadelphia Public School for children with physical disabilities. Fred, my husband, and I moved to Glenside, and began our family, having two daughters.                                                                                                        

I became a Sunday School Teacher at St. Peter’s and chair of the PA Diocese Task Force on Disabilities requiring me to think about my own church’s accessibility for persons with a disability and also the diocese’s churches.  Back in the 1950’s when I had polio. persons with a disability did the accommodations and many times were not able to attend churches and other public functions.  Times were changing with laws being passed for reasonable accommodations, but churches were exempt, except as Jim Brady stated in the “That All May Worship” publication that churches are subjected to a higher authority, God. Looking at my own church it had only one step to get into the sanctuary and you could get in through the sacristy without a step. Gradually with prodding and many discussions we became more accessible for persons with mobility disabilities, installing a ramp to the parish hall, unisex handicapped accessible bathroom, cutouts in pews for wheelchair access and finally a ramp from the sanctuary to the Parish Hall. Because of accommodations for persons with disabilities it was possible to call outstanding woman who happened to have a disability like our new rector.

St. Peter’s has continued to welcome all, including my granddaughter who has an Intellectual disability and has been an active participant at our church serving as acolyte, as have many others with a variety of disabilities, including persons on the autism spectrum.   We are a “Believe Out Loud “church welcoming the LGBTQ members, making our church a vibrant community.  Now in the time of the pandemic we are finding new ways to make the church accessible, streaming, zooming and drive-byes. All Are Welcome.