The idea of including people with disabilities in church life can sound overwhelming when someone doesn't know where to begin. Most of the following ideas are easily implemented and at minimal cost.
- Connect with others in your church who have the same passion. Be an advocate with persons with disabilities, not just an advocate for them. (As self-advocates like to say, “Nothing about us without us.”)
- Make sure your congregation receives enough copies of Breaking Barriers for each individual/family. Ensure that these are distributed individually to the congregation (not lain on a table somewhere).
- Many church bulletins include a phrase, “Please stand, if you are able” which separates people. Request that the bulletin instead say, “Please rise in body or in spirit,” which unites. Ask that worship leaders explain this change to the congregation, and use that phrase when leading the worship service.
- Provide large print bulletins for people with visual impairments.
- Distribute print copies of lyrics displayed on the overhead screen to people who cannot stand.
- Make an appointment with your pastor to discuss how the church can best include people with disabilities in your church life. Ask if a disability awareness worship service can be scheduled. Disability Concerns has been designated for the third Sunday in October by our denomination, but this service can be held at any time during the year.
- With a member who has a mobility impairment and with church leadership, do an accessibility audit of your church building and programs.
- Talk with the person with disabilities and with the family. They know their needs and gifts best! Ask your council to ask all congregation members what needs they may have. (Some disabilities are “invisible.”)
- Encourage your council to adopt a Church Policy on Disabilities if they have not done so already.
- Keep the confidentiality of the person, especially in public prayer. Ask for permission to openly pray for him or her.
- Many physical accommodations should be considered. First on the list should be accessibility to the sanctuary, pew cutouts, and accessible restrooms. (“If they can’t go, they won’t come.”) Second, consider making other areas of the building accessible including fellowship and education rooms, and things like drinking fountains.
- Keep accessible parking and entrances clear of snow, clean, smooth, and well lit.
- Ensure adequate lighting where your church meets.
- Offer large print bulletins, song sheets, and other church publications (and Braille when requested in advance).
- Have simple, non-busy backgrounds on projected slides.
- Make sermon manuscripts available to people before the worship service (so that someone who is hard of hearing can follow along).
- Ensure that the sound system is in good working order.
- Consider installing a hearing loop system. (See www.hearingloop.org.)
- Arrange for sign language translation (when requested in advance).
Allergies and Chemical Sensitivity
- Encourage your congregation to become a scent-free zone to help people with asthma, emphysema, or others who have chemical sensitivities. Asking people to avoid wearing aftershave, cologne, or perfume to church is a good first step.
- Offer grape juice and gluten-free bread for those who need these alternatives to wine and regular bread at communion.
- Ask your congregation members to label food at potlucks, especially those containing peanuts and tree nuts.
- Provide valet parking for disabled people and older church members, especially in inclement weather.
- Have a few volunteers who would be willing to provide transportation to and from worship services and other church events.
- Always have some sort of snack or juice available especially for someone who has diabetes.
- Provide a person who is willing to take notes for others.
- Encourage your worship leaders to strive for multi-sensory worship remembering the importance of texture, taste, color, and movement as they prepare. This is great for all people since all people learn things and experience God in different ways.
- Work to create a “climate” or “culture” in your congregation in which standing up or walking out by people with disabilities is seen as an aid to worship, not a disruption.
- Some disabilities cause the person to have difficulty following rules or exhibiting correct behavior. Be aware of this, but do not let this behavior reach the point where it endangers anyone - including themselves.
(This article is quoted from Everybody Belongs. Everybody Serves. A Handbook for Disability Advocates. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Disability Concerns, 2009. This booklet has been revised and is available as Inclusion Handbook: Everybody Belongs Everybody Serves. Ed. Terry A. DeYoung and Mark Stephenson. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Reformed Church Press, 2011. Disability Concerns makes this download available for free.)