Two weeks ago I wrote about Chelwood Church and the significant contribution that several people with cognitive impairments have had on their outreach work. It all started because Chelwood welcomed one young man 25 years ago.
Most churches believe in the importance of outreach, and some have reached out to their neighbors in extraordinary ways, but few have considered the significant impact they can make by reaching people with disabilities in their outreach work.
According to research, about 1 in 4 households is directly affected by disability, and about half of them attend church at least once per month. This number will increase as the average age of the population in North America increases. Research also indicates that two thirds of these households affected by disability who do not participate in church would like to be involved.
To give a specific example, let’s say that there are 160 households in the immediate neighborhood of your church. Of those, about 40 are directly affected by disability and about 20 of these 40 are currently attending a church. Another 13 households affected by disability have a high spiritual interest and would become involved in a church if they knew that they would be welcomed.
So why aren’t these 13 households currently attending church?
Some cannot attend because the disability makes it impossible for the person to be in church on a Sunday morning for worship. As for the rest, sadly, it’s very likely that they have not felt welcomed by churches they attended in the past.
Without meaning to, churches have erected various barriers to people with disabilities and their families.
- Architectural barriers keep away people who have mobility impairments. Steps, inaccessible bathrooms, lack of pew cut outs, and narrow doors all send a message that people who use walkers and wheelchairs are not welcome.
- Communication barriers keep away people who have visual and hearing impairments. Slide projection on fancy backgrounds can be difficult for people with visual impairments to read. Lack of availability of large print materials and lack of hearing assistive devices send the message that only people who hear and see well may come to church. People who are deaf need sign language interpretation.
- Attitudinal barriers keep away many people and families who deal with disability. Parents of children with autism often hear the comment that they need to give their child more discipline, when lack of discipline is not a problem at all. Some families have been asked never to bring a child with a disability back to Sunday school again. Some people who use wheelchairs get ignored by congregation members. Many congregations assume that people with disabilities are burdens on the congregation and have nothing to offer.
Many dedicated congregations have overcome these barriers and engage people with disabilities in their life and ministry. The 10 households in the neighborhood of your church would like to start participating. Will your church welcome and engage them? What has your church been doing to make that happen?