They can take away the Mosque, but they’ll never take my faith
When I think about faith, I feel love, first, then pain. It wasn’t always this way. My journey to identifying as disabled started in a Friday Jummah, surrounded by a community bending and swooshing in prayer around me. It was a standout moment in a history of my faith bolstering me.
I grew up in a rural suburb of North Texas, in a bustling, primarily South Asian hub of Muslims, spread out across a primarily white community. My first memories are of teachers trying to comfort me — always fussing, telling me I was such a good student, if I could only get along with others. I wondered if they’d feel the same way, if they’d known me before I went into education, back when I was still a non-speaking child who regularly had to fight my own abusive family. They didn’t know what to do with me. I was too socially uncomfortable to hang out with anyone, including other South Asians.
I didn’t understand the way that other kids moved, the way that they talked —it was all this fascinating, new language that I could study but couldn’t imitate. Alone, though, I immersed myself in my faith. I read Qu’ran. I prayed regularly, reciting Arabic that I’d learned by heart after repeating it over and over since I first had speech. I didn’t completely understand it at first. I struggled with how hard the language in the Qu’ran itself was, and I had to ask a lot of questions. Alone, I fell in love with the story of Islam. It was in groups, however, that I fell in love with God.
From Islamic Sunday school to my regular attendance at my local Mosque, I found myself most at peace when I was praying. The rote motion of people around me was a comfort. The rules were always the same. No shoes. Men go there, women go here. Ignore the screaming, playing children. It all used to make so much sense.
As I got older, I also found myself with new words to understand what I experienced. I found the autistic community, and I got diagnoses — a lot of them, all at once. I got my first experiences with mobility aids. I found out that I wasn’t actually a homebody, just someone in too much pain to leave home. With the right combination of meds and a wheeled mobility aid (a rollator, then a scooter, then a power chair, as I gained access to insurance and an occupational therapist), I was unstoppable. I had enough energy to go to LGBT group meetings, to disability group meetings, to transit councils. I could go everywhere, do everything.
Except for, as I found out, when I couldn’t. When the LGBT groups met at loud, crowded bars up steps. When the disability meetup refused my autism accommodations. When mosques, segregated by gender, literally had no space for me as a nonbinary person, but also almost always had no elevators for me to access the prayer areas in the first place.
The physical barriers preventing me from entering mosques pushed me into the arms of the progressive Muslim movement, where I was met with even more ableism. At the first meeting of a chapter of one of the largest progressive Muslim organizations, the elevator up to the prayer space was broken, and I was made to physically crawl up a flight of steps because there was no plan to accommodate me if it broke. They then proceeded to be disgusted when I nearly threw up and implied that I was being unreasonable for expecting them, the organizers of an allegedly progressive space, to host an event that wheelchair users could reasonably attend.
The difference between the Mosques and the progressive muslim org, however, is that the org was a nonprofit with more than 15 employees. They were legally bound to the ADA. It took me going over the heads of the organizers, straight to the org president, and showing them the law for anything to get done. I am not welcome there again, and I never will be. But I made them move.
That’s been the story, over and over again. I fight. I bite. I throw the law and my protected rights at people where I can, and publicly shame lack of access where I can’t, but it always ends the same. The looks of exhaustion when I enter the room, after. The question, always, “Why are you making this so difficult?” or “Why are you being so harsh?” about asking people for basic access, 30 years after the ADA was signed into law. This was never supposed to be the end, yet people act as though getting me in the front door is an act of God, or a special favor, let alone giving me what I need to participate.
It’s because of this treatment that I find myself largely isolated, in the ways that I practice my faith. With the exception of my long-distance board participation in Masjid-Al Rabia, a Muslim community center based in Chicago, my faith practices have been largely alone. Prayers behind closed doors in my house. Me struggling to read and understand Qu’ran alone, as my brain fog gets worse. I can count the days of the year I get to physically pray alongside other Muslims on one hand.
I was reminded of this again, recently, when I tried to buy a tasbeeh and prayer mat. I asked for recommendations, but all of the Islamic bookstores in the DC/Maryland/Virginia area that anyone knew about, including Google’s recommendations, were inaccessible. The only way that I could get one from an Islamic seller was to have a friend several states over buy and send me one all the way from Georgia.
I’ve had to self-advocate pretty much daily since I came into my disabled identity, and it is exhausting and isolating. It drives me to stay home many days, no longer because I don’t have energy, but because when I try to find people like me, I’m told, in every way possible, that I am not physically welcome in spaces that are supposedly for me. In Islamic bookstores. At South Asian Muslim groceries. At Mosques. In “progressive” Muslim spaces. Nobody claims me.
I want Mosques in particular to make active changes without me having to fight so bitterly hard for them. I need more mosques to have information about how to request interpreters, to have the construction done for elevators and ramps, to speak of my community with respect and fight for our issues the way they do for their own. Going beyond access, claiming me-truly claiming me-looks like caring about me all of the time, not just when it’s convenient. This extends to all Muslim spaces-if you claim to want me, act like it. Take the steps necessary to get me in the room and participate on equal footing, and fight to defend my right to access and live in the world alongside me.
As a member of the ADA generation, I experience a lot of privileges that people before me didn’t have. I don’t want to diminish that. I can get on the bus. I got an education. I have a job and can enter my place of work. However, what the ADA intentionally excluded (places of worship, small businesses) and what it didn’t (social groups, nonprofits) remain challenges for me, every day as I try so hard to participate and find community.
I’ll keep fighting, as long as I have to. I should never have to. I’ll keep praying. They can take away the house of God, but they’ll never take away my faith.
Noor Pervez is a student organizer turned autism and LGBT+ educator, public speaker and internet researcher. He focuses on the intersections of disability, gender identity, sexuality and religion. He now works at the Autistic Self Advocacy Network as the Community Engagement Coordinator.
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