Mosques that change to welcome families with disabilities change everything

(RNS) — Weekly Friday prayers at a mosque adhere to a certain rise and fall of quiet concentration, breath and the rhythm of physical and spiritual movement. It can be a challenging environment for individuals with disabilities, particularly autistic kids and adults. A few bad experiences can end a family’s attempt to be part of prayers and programming at a mosque.

I’ve learned this over the past nearly 20 years in talking with dozens of Muslims living with disabilities and their families — as a journalist but also as a parent of a profoundly autistic son. On Fridays, when in the past my son D was home on breaks from school, or now from his adult day program, I’m usually the one who stays with him. Now 23, he hadn’t attended Friday congregational prayers in more than 10 years.

But a few weeks ago, I was attending a conference out of town, and my husband switched his schedule to work from home to be with D. With me away and our other two children in high school and college, and D home instead of at his adult day program, my husband sent me a text saying he was going to contact one of the volunteers at an Islamic center near our home in Virginia to see if he could help accommodate D.

I was surprised when the next thing I received was a series of photos of our son hanging out next to his father as he was performing his Friday prayers in the second jamaat — the second Friday prayer gathering, which usually is less crowded. A friend had greeted them at the door and helped them get settled in for prayers in a separate, quiet room with a view of the imam and his sermon piped in over an intercom.

The moment healed something inside of me, something I didn’t even realize was still broken.

American Muslim communities and mosques have come a long way in the last 10 years. A gaping lack of inclusion, accommodations and resources for disabled families had resulted in many families being “unmosqued,” a fact Muslim leaders have come to acknowledge. Simultaneously, many of us living on the margins of communal faith life started speaking up and organizing.

The author’s son, D, listens to the Friday sermon at the West End Islamic Center in Glen Allen, Virginia. (Photo by M. Taruj Ali)

It became quickly apparent, as it had already in Christian and other faith communities for years, that the failure to welcome those with disabilities not only marginalizes those living with disability, but their families as well.

“When [mosques] hold themselves out as community centers, where whole families [living with disabilities] can feel welcome and celebrated, it sets the tone for the faith community,” said Sabina Abdul-Qadir, operations manager for Muhsen, an organization that supports Muslims with disabilities and helps make Muslim spaces more inclusive.

A needs-based assessment conducted by Muhsen with nearly 2,000 Muslim disability families reports similar findings. “Families tell us that if a disabled family member isn’t supported, included, welcomed, or accommodated,” said Abdul-Qadir, “the whole family tends to disengage. It’s such a loss.”

There is a better way, she said. “This third generation that is coming up — 3G Muslims — whether male or female or living with a disability, they want to walk in as a family. They don’t want to enter through separate doors. They all want to enter through the front door. That’s the dream.”

Having to separate upon entering our local mosques or enter through separate doors has been one of several acknowledged deterrents for my family to engage in prayers and programs for years. In a 2013 essay, I called American Muslim communities to task for failing to help and support those living with disabilities.

“I have yet to find an organization, a pilot program at a mosque or community center, an Islamic school,” I wrote, “that willingly serves and accepts special needs students, or even mosques or Muslim community centers that organize respite services or partners with local special needs organizations to offer informational sessions.”

More importantly, I wrote, “I have never heard a khutbah addressing the importance Islam places on helping those who need our help most. Have you ever heard such a khutbah in your local mosque anywhere?”

The next year, my friend Joohi Tahir helped co-found Muhsen with Omar Suleiman (a columnist at Religion News Service) and invited me to serve on its board of directors. I have witnessed painstaking efforts to increase awareness and acceptance through public conversations, programming, mosque partnerships and more. 

In a 2022 research study by Erik Carter at Vanderbilt University on disability and congregational Inclusion in churches, 32% of parents reported changing their places of worship because their child was not welcome or included. More than 50% said they either had to stay with their child to participate in religious activities or they were never asked about the best way to include their loved one. 

Although we’ve been supportive of the growth of the mosques in our community and sent our younger two kids to Islamic Sunday School when they were young, we’ve remained somewhat unmosqued due to our entire family not fitting in to the structure of mosque life, from theology to programming that doesn’t feel inclusive.

Bill Gaventa, founder and former director of the Summer Institute of Theology and Disability, has said that a community’s decision to prioritize disability inclusion is more supported than ever before in Christian circles, and other faith communities are working hard to do the same. “There are certainly loads of materials and resources out now that can help churches. There are a ton of other things now written by families for families, things on theology, the Bible and disability. And it continues to grow and explode.”

Gaventa pointed out that churches that started working with disabled kids are now moving to include them as adults. “How do we help this young adult transition into other roles and activities in our congregation?” he asked. “The most valid and authentic way is to have some job for them in that faith community, so they’re contributing and not just on the receiving end of things.” 

This is something keenly appreciated at Muhsen and other Muslim disability organizations and mosques across the country. Global Deaf Muslim offers Islamic and Arabic education classes for deaf adults as well as religious study circles for different age groups. Muhsen has established an adult day program at its headquarters in Chicago and has one in the pipeline in California.

More than 110 mosques across the United States are “Muhsen certified,” meaning they adhere to standards and practices that make it physically inclusive as well as supportive in its programming. In 2023 alone, 25 mosques became Muhsen certified, and during this year’s Ramadan, a number of them held special Ramadan taraweeh prayer services and iftars catered to families and individuals with disabilities.

This gives me hope, even though change seems to move agonizingly slowly. It baffles me that accommodations for those who are disabled and/or elderly is not an immediate priority for every house of worship, every faith community. 

But there is no timeline on progress. The photos my husband sent me from Friday prayers last month brought enormous joy to our other kids, who are trying to figure out how to align all our schedules so we can all go to Friday prayers — together.

(Dilshad D. Ali is a freelance journalist. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

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