Our Doors are Open: an Accessible Welcome for Believers With Disabilities

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Professionally, I work in a remote capacity for the Inclusive Design Research Centre. This Centre is a department of the Ontario College of Art and Design, where an extensive community of open-source developers, designers, researchers, advocates, and volunteers collaborate to design emerging information technology and practices inclusively—that is, with varied body types in mind.

I first helped out with the Our Doors are Open Project in 2017 and 2018, as the contact person for Protestant Christian communities in a multi faith context. Then, in March 2021, I was thrilled to become the IDRC’s primary researcher on the second phase of Our Doors are Open. In this phase, we aim to help churches in Ontario, Canada, and the world, become more accessible. Quite simply, we want to help believers with disabilities integrate into churches.

One of the key outcomes of this project is a series of webinars, usually about seventy-five minutes in length, where the project team helps individual church congregations or faith-based organizations to assess their own progress towards inclusion. Within these webinars, we attempt to facilitate a relatively-simple four-step process:

  1. First, we want to define and discuss welcome and inclusion, so part of the substance of our webinar involves group work. We want to help communities think and feel through the ways that they embody those two concepts. We define welcome as inclusively as we can; it’s primarily based on folks' interpersonal experiences, and attuned to how other people engage with them in indoor and outdoor spaces. At the same time, inclusive thinking means keeping the diverse needs of different bodies in mind, embodying accessible behaviors, and—in particular—attempting to include everyone, and to validate their perspectives from their own walks of life.

  2. Second, we aim to help churches create access plans for their communities using our Brief Accessibility Checklist. The Checklist includes three kinds of barriers—attitudinal, structural, and communicative—and in the webinars, we regularly have ten or fifteen minutes of lively discussion of churches’ accessible and inclusive features, as well as their barriers to the participation of believers with disabilities.

  3. Third, we strive to help church members promote the active participation of people with disabilities, and can offer multiple strategies for that (closer to the end of the webinar), in terms of leadership, communication, and physical access…

  4. …and fourth, we offer more strategies to help churches to reach out to members old and new. That part of the conversation encompasses the last few slides of our webinar, and is inflected by our collective experience of the coronavirus.

In light of these diffuse considerations, how can North American churches “build back better,” or—with greater accuracy—create a “new normal,” after COVID, that feels and looks healthier than the old? I would simply, and strongly, recommend one strategy that works for us at the IDRC: active listening. We call it just ask, just listen.

When you encounter someone who’s clearly in need, as Jesus meets Bartimaeus in Mark 10, just ask, “How can I help?” Then, just as Jesus listens to Bartimaeus, just listen to the answer they give you, and provide aid, or point them to someone who can support them, based on that answer. Active listening is a helpful tool, because it empowers people with disabilities to clearly express our needs.

We’re really looking forward to opening new doors to access with you folks! Thank you for reading.

You can follow Our Doors are Open on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/OurDoorsAreOpen/

You can follow Our Doors are Open on Twitter: https://twitter.com/OpenDoorsIDRC

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