Universal Design: It's for Everybody!

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The above comic illustrates the simple yet beautiful concept of universal design: the design and composition of an environment so that it can be accessed, understood, and used to the greatest extent possible by all people regardless of their age, size, ability, or disability. Rather than creating special accommodations/requirements for a minority population, universal design reflects spaces and programs that can be accessed by everybody.

In a recent webinar, Alfred Yeun presented a universal design strategy that includes ministry with families with disabilities. Yeun works with Collaborative Equals, a team that consults around universal design practices.

In setting the context for this webinar, Yeun cited the research of David Briggs and Andrew Whitehead. Some of these statistics might be familiar to you, though they are important to realize what families might be missing from our congregations:

  • The odds of children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) never attending services were 1.84 times higher than for children without a chronic health condition.
  • The odds of children with depression and anxiety never attending services were 1.73 times greater.
  • The odds of children with a developmental delay or a learning disability (IDD) never attending were 1.36 times higher.

Families may not attend church because one or more child(ren) do not feel at home in the community. Some may be tempted to take turns—as an example, one parent might bring a sibling “typical abilities” while the other stays at home with a child with a disability. Though, if we believe in making room for all of families within the Body of Christ to worship God together, this practice seems contrary to living as Christian community together!

Our scriptures tell of Jesus Christ, who particularly welcomed children and chastised the disciples who would limit their access. Yeun says this is a clear message to ministers and congregations today: welcome children and their families to deepen their relationship with Jesus as a beloved and integral part of the Body. He says that churches must not create programs that cater only to one group or type of people, but a community created with and for all people. He comments that this goes well beyond addressing needs of children with disabilities and their families: “Universal Design for Ministry means a design of community and programs that are for everyone, the regulars, the irregulars, the seekers, and so on.”

In Disability Concerns we emphasize everybody belongs and everybody serves, and in that witnessing and sharing gifts for the uplifting of God’s whole community. Yeun says that universal design holds the belief that “We are not complete as church without seeing every person as God’s gift.”

Yeun listed many ways a congregation can practice Universal Design for Ministry. We have annotated them!

Have a child protection policy and practice—and enforce it

See materials from and work collaboratively with your congregation’s Safe Church Team to develop policy and practice with children of all abilities in mind!

Accessible registration form

Have a Sunday School form for all children requesting information on specific needs and strategies parents have found helpful and activities/people the child enjoys

Voluntary inclusion

Jesus welcomed children—but did not force them to come. Create a space/program that accommodates and celebrates all differences, but do not be discouraged if the response is not immediate. Communities that practice universal design takes time and intentional building of relationship.

Create a community charter with all the children and role model it

Norms are important to make with all children. Our commitment to being a disciple of Jesus includes the commandments: to love God and to love neighbour. With children and families, explore ways this is lived out in community.

Establish effective communication with the families that show they are God’s gift to the community

Parents with kids with disabilities often feel on the margins of community because of social isolation or lack of time or other reasons. Siblings often feel left out because of attention required by children with disabilities, and the child with a disability may struggle with feelings of un-belonging. All members of families need to hear how they are a beloved part of God’s community and how they can live as a disciple of Jesus Christ!

Collaborate with existing areas of ministry

As we mentioned earlier Safe Church Ministry would serve as an important partner in creating safe environments for all children. Other areas that would be great partners in collaboration are worship and pastoral care.

Be wise towards the temptation to create a ‘new’ ministry

Sometimes we think creating a separate program is the best way forward, and there may be occasion when separation is necessary. Though, if we are interested in universal design for our ministry, we need to begin with what is already offered and identify changes that might be made for everybody to belong and serve together.

Acknowledge and thank every supporter and leader regularly and genuinely

Ministry that practices universal design is not simple.It requires time, reflection, intentionality, and many people. Leaders, families, children, and the whole community should receive recognition for the difference they are making for God’s community!

The list could be added to! However, we hope these reflections can help you identify ways your ministry could (or does) practice universal design. In conclusion, Yeun comments, “Individuals and families are not to be thought of as products or means of certain programs or models including those in the so-called disability ministry. Instead, programs or models in ministry are best to result from a gospel commitment to these individuals and families. People come before any program or model.”

For more information on serving in ministry with children with disabilities, have a look at resources for teaching Sunday school and questionnaires to get to know who you are in ministry with and what their needs might be. As always, if you would like to talk through a specific situation, reach out to your Church or Regional Disability Advocate or Disability Concerns ([email protected]).

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Good post Miram! We need to make every effort to practice inclusion with all kids and other marginalized people! I like the part about not creating special ministry but include these efforts in our main ministry! Thx

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