Making a scene

Published March 21, 2024

By Lib Campbell

The Americans with Disabilities Act was passed into law on July 26, 1990. The ADA is civil rights legislation that prohibits discrimination based on disability. It calls for reasonable accommodation in public spaces and accessibility to those public accommodations. Since 1990, we have seen more ramps, curbs with handicap entrances, bathroom grab bars, parking spaces and hand railings in public places. 
It is hard to understand exactly why management made the decision to ask the Reverend Doctor William Barber to leave the movie theater because the chair he uses is different from a regular wheelchair. First glance suggests legalism run amuck. Second glance reveals compassion deficiency. Third glance confirms what many people with disabilities know - disability denial, which is akin to thoughtless stupidity.
William Barber is no stranger to us in North Carolina. He is a gentle giant, a prophetic voice calling forth justice on behalf of poor people, like voting rights, minimum wage and a host of other civil rights and justice issues deeply embedded in our culture. The March edition of The Christian Century says, “William Barber is no stranger to being escorted by police away from scenes of protest.” But this removal was not from a protest, it was from an AMC Theatre complex in Greenville, North Carolina. 
He had taken his mother to see, The Color Purple. He took his own chair with him. He takes this chair everywhere he goes so he will have a place to sit. Reports say he placed his chair in the wheelchair cutout where theatre seats are removed to allow reasonable access to handicapped people. Christian Century reports that he had been careful to place the chair so as not to block anyone’s view or pathway. 
When William Barber was on set at NCSPIN, he brought this chair with him. It accommodates his severe arthritic condition, allowing him to participate in activities like being on television with other panelists. His chair was never a problem. In fact, listening to him, the chair fades away in the realization that to sit in the company of Bishop Barber is pure privilege. He eloquently speaks on issues close to his heart. That in 2024, he would be subjected to such humiliation while simply wanting to sit and watch a movie is sad and disturbing. I pray none of this was racially motivated. 
Bishop Barber says in Christian Century, “This is not the ancient world where people who are sick are pushed to the side and told, ‘You can’t participate.’ With our laws, you have to make accommodations.” Apparently, that’s not how it always works. 
Amy Kenny’s book, My Body is Not a Prayer Concern, speaks into the issue of ableism and disability from the perspective of her own handicap. She is wheelchair bound and makes the case for recognizing personhood beyond disability and capability beyond limitation. Her work as a scholar focuses on disability justice, casting a vision for communities, particularly Christian communities, to engage with new imagination about what disability means in a world where all are made whole in Christ. God does not cast out the disabled; God loves us all.
One of Amy Kenny’s observations is around disability denial. Many disabilities are not visible. She cites reports of how people are shouted down for using handicap parking and “pulling the handicap card” to get special treatment. Suspicion is a cheap shot that can embarrass and hurt disabled people. She writes about how even we able-bodied people may find reduced capacities and increasing mobility problems as we age. We will age into our own handicaps.
There will come a day when we look at a flight of stairs that have no handrail and panic that we will embarrass ourselves in a feeble attempt to climb. We will sit on a low toilet, remembering all the OT strategies of leaning forward to find balance when there is no grab bar. We will yield to the cane and walker. We will surrender to the wheelchair. We will exercise and work to be Younger Next Year but, alas, we will watch ourselves grow old if we are granted that privilege.
We will learn the lesson of adaptation to new limitations. Hopefully we will grow in understanding and compassion for those who live a lifetime with limitations and handicaps. But I would rather live that life than the life that of a movie theatre manager whose hard heart chooses to eject someone before trying to find an empathetic solution. He obviously has forgotten the first rule, “Do no harm.” We need open hearts, new eyes, active imaginations and a little compassion to see all God’s people as Beloved. 
 I hope Bishop Barber found a place to see The Color Purple. And I hope the Greenville theatre management has learned a few lessons in how we are called to love and care for one another. 
Lib Campbell is a retired Methodist pastor, retreat leader, columnist and host of the blogsite She can be contacted at