Following two accidents in my teens and twenties, I live with a serious spinal injury, getting around with the help of a wheelchair or crutches and with pain as a constant companion. When I am on retreat, I need to change position regularly, either by lying down or standing up. I need to do this. And at the places where I teach and practice, I can do this. Taraloka, a U.K. retreat center for women where I often teach, has a dedicated living space for disabled retreatants. There is an accessible bathroom, and the whole venue is wheelchair accessible. I know how lucky I am.
But I worry that others may not be so lucky. In the early days of establishing Buddhism in the West, disabled access was understandably not a priority. Heroic efforts transformed existing buildings into the beautiful Buddhist centers we see today, but often these buildings are multistory and without elevators, meaning that people with mobility impairments are inevitably excluded from encountering the dharma. Now that many of our sanghas have been established for decades, I believe the time is ripe to address accessibility head-on.
Last year I attended the International Western Dharma Teachers Gathering at Omega along with several hundred others from a wide range of sanghas and traditions. One whole day was dedicated to “realizing diversity.” I heard a great deal of wise discourse about diversity of race and gender. This was heartening—clearly, both these areas are rich fields for our sanghas to address. What I missed was the acknowledgment of those with physical impairments. What of the millions in our midst with visible and invisible illnesses and disabilities? Our sanghas are aging, and so too are our bodies. In the U.K., for example, around one in three people lives with a long-term health condition, and around one in five lives with chronic pain. Many of these people will show up at our Buddhist centers, perhaps increasingly as the rise of secular mindfulness gives them a taste of working with the mind. It is important that we accommodate such people by providing easy access and comfortable seating, being inclusive of different postures while meditating, and, perhaps most important, simply being kind.
In Manchester, we have a woman named Helen practicing in our sangha who is deaf and blind. But if the teacher uses a special microphone that transmits to her hearing aid, she can hear the dharma. She comes on retreat and has learned to make her way around the center using touch. She is a great inspiration to many of the other retreatants—her presence helps them let go of their own petty concerns. It is a challenge for the teachers to accommodate her needs, yes, but this too is positive. It gives all of us—the teachers, the other retreatants, and Helen herself—the opportunity to go beyond likes and dislikes and move toward freedom.
Let’s make sure we create conditions for everyone to be welcome in our sanghas regardless of age, color, physical abilities, gender, or any other perceived differences. Let’s allow the astonishing wonder of the buddhadharma to flow out into the world for the benefit of all beings, excluding no one.