Mosques are a place of community and worship, tenets that are essential to Islam. Despite the importance, some people are unable to fully participate simply because they cannot get through the doors.
The inaccessibility of mosques is a long-standing problem, whether due to issues such as the lack of funding and resources at the time of its construction and a lack of awareness about the needs of the disability community. This can be a source of frustration, and even isolation for those afflicted by the issue.
This problem may be more widespread than one may initially think. According to the CDC, 1 in 4 adults live with a disability. Whether present at birth, or a result of old age, it is likely that most will have experience with this in some capacity within their lifetime.
Disability movements across history have helped to make large strides in ensuring the reduction of barriers. A significant step in this direction was the passing of the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) in 1990, which requires buildings to be accessible to people with disabilities. Despite this, places of worship are actually exempt from these same accessibility requirements as public spaces under Section 307, which states that “provisions of this title shall not apply to religious organizations or entities controlled by religious organizations, including places of worship.” This results in mosques often doing the bare minimum, only looking to fulfill city ordinances, which are unique to specific locations. For example, the city of Chicago is not responsible for enforcement of the ADA, Rehabilitation Act, Fair Housing Act or such other federal or state laws, instead enforcing their own specific municipal code, which outlines accessibility requirements under Title 14B. Since these laws can vary from city to city, it is not an effective method of regulation for the accessibility of mosques. For example, the original building of Masjid al-Huda did not even require an elevator to get to the second floor because it was less than 1000 square feet. Instead, women were given a section of the first floor to utilize if they could not comfortably access the second floor.
The result is often mosques only implementing accessibility to legally maintain operation without violation of codes or to achieve recognition for the presence of these features alone, without actually servicing the disabled community.
This issue speaks to the social model of disability which theorizes that disability is a direct result of societal barriers, both physical and attitudinal, instead of the actual impairment. For example, a person using a wheelchair may be able to maneuver through the world just as easily as someone who can walk without a wheelchair if they are equipped with all the necessary environmental tools. In this model, the disability exists completely outside of the person’s body, but rather lies within the systemic issues of society and the resulting lack of fit between the body and environment.
According to Belal Elkadri the Project and Certification Coordinator at Muhsen, the root of this issue of inaccessibility is, in fact, largely attitudinal. As well as his work with Muhsen, he has been a public speaker and youth director for several years, so he encounters these barriers on a regular basis. One of the biggest barriers is the stigma regarding disability in the Muslim community. Lack of exposure to people with disabilities can cause misunderstanding or lack of understanding in general, which largely contributes to the issue. The lack of understanding can cause mosques to feel unwelcoming. Because those with disabilities do not feel a sense of inclusion, they will not be as present in the community.
Another barrier he mentions is finding someone to advocate for this population. Issues that affect the community at large, rather than the mosques themselves are often overlooked by board members for a multitude of reasons.
Together, these two barriers can contribute to a lack of awareness. Those who identify as disabled may not feel comfortable going to the board members and voicing their concerns because they do not already have a strong presence in the community. Without someone to advocate for them, these problems may just go unnoticed. Belal Elkadri points out that conversations and experiences are the only way people learn. Without exposure, there is no way of gaining awareness of the problem.
Though this problem is not nearly eradicated completely, efforts are certainly being made to alleviate the issue. Muhsen is one of the organizations frontiering these efforts. Muhsen is a non-profit organization with the aim to make active efforts to “establish an inclusive and accessible environment for individuals with disabilities and their families.” They have a Masjid Certification process, with multiple levels, in which mosques must meet certain criteria in order to be certified. Some of these requirements include wheelchair accessibility, needs assessment survey of the community, and restroom and wudu accessibility. Several mosques are already on this list. For example, included on this list is The Prayer Center of Orland Park. Imam Kifah Mustapha, Imam and Director, claims that at the time of building, the planning committee put a lot of thought into the design and took into consideration all necessary accommodations. He says that he has never come across any issues with accessibility. With the mosques that have certification already, Muhsen is in constant communication with them to ensure that they are carrying out the mission of the organization.
This forethought is not always possible at the time of the establishment of the mosque. Rezwanul Haque, speaks a bit about the building of Masjid al-Huda. It was built in 1999, and accessibility was originally not a concern that was brought to their attention. They had basic resources in place, such as a ramp to enter, but as the congregation that were committed to praying here began to age, the recognition of this need increased. Haque recognizes these continuing accessibility issues and says that though it was not an issue they intended on having, it is one that needs to be addressed.
They have actively been trying to address these issues with short-term solutions, and they are hoping that the upcoming plans for renovations will permanently solve these issues. There are plans in place to add an elevator, providing access to both the basement and second floor. Their current focus is allowing access for everyone in the community. Haque ends by acknowledging that they “have a duty to alleviate any kinds of barriers that prevent a person from entering the house of Allah (swt)”.
In order to continue to move towards a community of inclusion and acceptance, it is necessary to start a dialogue about this topic. Belal Elkadri says that the way to make change happen is to have uncomfortable conversations. Having an open dialogue and spreading knowledge will facilitate change in the attitudes, and therefore the barriers that exist for this community.
In order to destigmatize disability, it is essential to utilize these conversations to educate others on what Islam says about the topic. A prime example of this is seen with a companion of the Prophet (ﷺ), Abdullah Ibn Umm Maktum, a man who was blind. Another depiction of disability in Islam is seen in a hadith (reported by Abu Huraira) speaking upon the importance of a man who is blind still coming to the mosque. The numerous accomodations and vigilant care for those with disabilities seen through these accounts should be what is highlighted in discussions regarding disability in the community. Through these efforts and conversations, the stigma that is so ingrained into the community will be pushed out and replaced by a sense of understanding and acceptance, strengthening the accessibility to the faith as a whole.