Various barriers prevent people with disabilities from full and effective participation in society and in the church.
- Architectural barriers prevent people with physical impairments from entering or using church buildings: for example, steps, narrow doorways, and inaccessible toilets.
- Communication barriers close off people with hearing or visual impairments from involvement in worship and other aspects of church life. Communication barriers can include failure to provide large print bulletins for members with visual impairments, or lack of adaptive devices to assist people with hearing impairments.
- Barriers of attitude keep people with disabilities on the margins of society and the church: for example, referring to people with disabilities as “the disabled” as if the gifts and talents of people with disabilities can be ignored and their entire lives can be summarized by the fact that they live disabilities.
Churches that want to break down these barriers and open ministry to and with people with disabilities need to take two paths to inclusion. Both are essential for the removal of barriers, and for moving toward full and effective participation of people with disabilities in church life. These paths are not steps, as if one must be traveled before the other. A church can start with either one, but must travel both if they are serious about including people with disabilities in their life and ministry.
The leadership of a congregation must decide that inclusion will be a priority in their congregation. Not only must leaders have a heart commitment to full inclusion, but also the members of the congregation must desire it. Everybody in the congregation must make the effort to begin removing barriers to participation. The congregation needs to think about and begin to address specific barriers that people with disabilities may encounter: architectural, communication, and attitude. As congregations consider changes, they will need to consider the costs of these changes in relation to their resources. Then they need to identify specific goals and begin working on them. Simple things a church can do include
- Making printed materials available in large print (18 point, sans serif font – like Arial),
- Use microphones at all worship services and meetings for the sake of people who are hard of hearing,
- Ensure that promotional materials and outgoing telephone message tells potential guests whether or the church building is wheelchair accessible and, if so, where the accessible entrance is located,
- Install sturdy hand railings at all indoor and outdoor steps,
- Keep all outdoor steps, ramps, sidewalks and disability parking spaces clear of snow and ice,
- Choose cleaning supplies that will reduce difficulties many people have to these products, Encourage everyone to avoid use of cologne, perfume, or aftershave,
- Use person-first language such as “a person with schizophrenia” or “Mary uses a wheelchair.”
Many churches become interested in inclusion because someone with a disability is born into or starts worshiping with the congregation. They begin to ask questions of the individual and perhaps his or her family. What supports do you need that the church can help with? What barriers to participation do you encounter here? Are there issues with our building, our communication, our programs, our attitudes that keep you from full participation in ministry? What are your gifts and how can we help you use them fully in the life of the congregation? Simple steps toward greater inclusion of individuals include
- Look at the person with a disability, not at the interpreter or companion,
- Use person-first language such as “a person with schizophrenia” or “Mary uses a
- Don’t pet or distract a guide dog.
- Tell a person who has a visual disability who you are when you approach and announce when you leave,
- Be flexible when people in the congregation make additional noise (clapping off beat, shouting, or the sound of a medical device),
- Ask before you assist a person and listen carefully to instructions.
Disability Concerns has a variety of resources to assist churches in both the general and specific inclusion of people with disabilities. Our poster, 30 Things You Can Do to Be Hospitable to People with Disabilities, contains many simple, practical ideas. Our Handbook for Disability Advocates goes into much more depth and is also available from Faith Alive Christian Resources.