Disability Awareness Sunday—whenever it is observed—ensures that the concerns of disabled persons are regularly set forth. A worship service is an excellent opportunity to bring into focus the multiple challenges of sisters and brothers who have to cope daily with any number of physical or mental limitations.
As we have done worship planning for disability awareness services, we have regularly sought to highlight the abilities of people with disabilities. Whether they read Scripture, offer a prayer, sing, or share a testimony—people with disabilities are not just tolerably usable as worship leaders, but they are often powerfully inspirational. That does not mean that there are not the occasional awkward moments and miscues, but we know that those things regularly take place in any gathering of believers!
In our region in northwest Iowa we are blessed to have two very fine organizations that provide effective and Christ-centered service to persons with a range of disabilities. Both have choirs that perform in the community. We have invited them on multiple occasions to lead worship through song in our services, and their enthusiasm for singing gospel hymns is joyfully contagious. A welcoming host church for such a group should anticipate that some accommodations may need to be made to remove physical barriers that hinder its special worship guests.
A spokesperson from the agency serving these guests should be given some time to tell of the overall program and perhaps interview individuals regarding their daily lives and something of their faith walk. Pictures projected for the congregation to see of these new friends engaged in daily activities or work can be an encouraging affirmation of personal worth.
On one Disability Awareness Sunday we arranged to interview an area educational professional, Crista Smidt, who uses a wheelchair. Crista powerfully articulated the unique challenges that she deals with as a person who has lived her entire life with the effects of the genetic disorder spinal muscular atrophy (SMA), a form of muscular dystrophy. She shared her emotions, personal goals, and how people could best assist persons with disabilities in the community. Giving a voice to the disabled community is best when that voice can actually be one of their own. It also gives opportunity for members of a congregation to learn firsthand how their own church facility looks from the perspective of a physically challenged person.
For congregations that regularly have a children's time within their worship, this segment of the service offers a great opportunity for practical application. Children are listening, and their parents are, too! Various objects can begin a discussion of the needs and nurturing of persons with limitations. This might well include including calling attention to needs of the congregation's elderly as well as members with temporary disabilities. For me this included talking about a challenging new lifestyle required while I was recovering from a retinal detachment. Adult listeners will also be reminded that our attitude toward persons with disabilities needs always to be empathetic but never patronizing. Caregivers, too, can be highlighted as persons in need of our prayers and encouragement.
The pastor's sermon for the day might draw on the Old Testament narrative of King David's provision for the disabled Mephibosheth, the cadre of friends who brought their paralyzed friend to Jesus through the roof, or the always pertinent message of active compassion as demonstrated in the parable of the Good Samaritan.
We have found Disability Awareness Sundays to be inspiring worship times as we encourage persons with disabilities and invite everyone to joyfully live out their faith with the helping hand of Christian love.