Inclusion of people with disabilities in church life begins before someone with a disability comes through the church door. If churches engage in accommodation on an ad hoc basis, they create an environment that is unwelcoming to the people who live with disabling conditions.
As an obvious example, a church that can be accessed only via steps excludes people who use wheelchairs. That congregation sends a message, “We want people here who can climb steps; no one else is welcome.” Churches send a similar message to people with visual impairments when the projected slides use small fonts and busy backgrounds, or when all printed materials are available only in regular size (12-point) font. Likewise, when a new child with behavior issues attends a Sunday school class, many church leaders say explicitly, “Don’t bring this child back again.”
We like to tell ourselves, “My church welcomes anyone.” But our failure to make our buildings and communication and programs accessible to a wide range of people sends the opposite message.
People with disabilities often face name-calling, prejudice, and even disgust from society. The heart of the gospel’s invitation speaks powerfully to people dealing with such painful rejection, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matt. 11:28-30)
What can we do to begin to sincerely welcome everyone who seeks fellowship with God through our own congregations? Here are some simple first steps:
1. Confess to God our failure to give that welcome.
2. Do an accessibility audit, and be sure to include people with disabilities on the assessment team. If you don’t have anyone who lives with a disability at your church, then ask someone from the community to help. You’ll win a friend if you listen carefully to him or her. Set up a task force to address findings of the audit.
3. Make sure printed and projected communications are accessible to people with visual impairments. Most of these changes can be made at little or no cost, other than learning to do things in a different way:
- Using Computers for Inclusive Worship
- Guidelines for Print and Web Accessibility
- Increasing the Accessibility of Technology
4. Train Sunday School teachers in basic discipline matters. When children are disruptive, approach parents and ask, “Susie has had some challenges in Sunday School. We want to find out how to make her feel welcome too.” Then follow up on that promise. A good book to start with would be Autism and Your Church, which gives useful advice for including children with various impairments in a church program (not just autism).
5. Download our Inclusion Handbook for many more ideas and next steps.
These are simple steps, with little cost. Some changes take money, but the most important change costs no money at all – changing our attitudes to really mean what we say, “Yes, everyone really is welcome at our church.”