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By Jeff McNair, professor of special education, California Baptist University

When people refer to “universal design” principles, typically they are thinking about physical changes in the built environment that are inherently accessible and benefit everyone — people with and without disabilities. The classic example is curb cuts. This physical change originally was made for wheelchair users but also benefits parents with strollers, young children, people using walkers, bicyclists, delivery workers, etc. The physical change has a significant benefit beyond those for whom it was designed.

A related principle for churches might be called “universal social design.” After years of interacting with persons with deficits in social skills, I find that my own social skills have changed, particularly because many folks with certain disabilities do not have the ability to change. Yet, many church activities demand high social skills.

If it is true that people are excluded from church for social- skill reasons, what changes might be instituted within the social environment that would benefit not only persons with disabilities but the larger population as well? What “social ramp” would cause more people to have access and find social acceptance?

By adopting universal social-design principles, interactions among congregants would change. Keeping the value of the individual foremost, we might observe more openness, forgiveness, correction without rejection, holiness, and depth in basic social interactions. (Biblical support illustrating the depth of this interaction can be found in Matthew 25:31-46, where social interactions are equated with interacting with Jesus himself.)

When social skills trump acceptance, people are rejected and the social environment does not learn acceptance. By practicing universal social design, perhaps more people would be chosen as friends, and social-skill demands across all settings would be more accommodating. Softening the social environment would make the church less judgmental and more flexible and accepting of others — a corrective for rejecting people on the basis of social- skill deficits.

We do well to remember that social-skill deficits are not sin, but rejecting someone due to social-skill deficits is sin.


What ARE universal social-design principles?  Are you talking about a change in attitudes, or does this include actual differences in what or how we do things in regard to events and programs?

What "social ramps" are helpful?

I think universal social design is a relatively new idea. In physical enviornments, universal design implies changing the enviorment such that physical accessability is facilitated. If I use a wheelchair, I have no ability to access a setting where there are only steps. I do not have the ability to change into someone who can use steps. So those in the environment change that environment by putting ramps in so that I have accessiblity. Social enviornments have developed such that there are certain social skills that are requisite for the environment. If I haven't those skills, I will be relegated to low social status and prevented from entering the social situation. Universal social design would imply changing the social rules of an environment that would allow for those with social skill deficits to participate in the environment. Let me provide some examples. If I am someone who has Tourettes syndrome, I cannot help that I make vocalizations. Typically, church worship services require me to sit silently (most denominations). Therefore I will change the worship enviornment so that someone who makes vocalizations is permitted social access (the social ramp is my rejecting my insistence on silence during a worship service). Other social skill "deficits" evidenced by people with autism or intellectual disability in other social environments might be imagined. People with Asperger's syndrome have told me that they have been told they are "wierd" by others because of their minor social skill deficits. These deficits need to be overlooked when people do not have the ability to understand social setting demands and change. The environment changes instead, broading what is acceptable in order that more people can be included.

It is arguable that the reason for the exclusion of persons with disabilities from churches is social skill deficits. In the same manner that the physical environment needs to change to include those with physical disabilities, the social environment needs to change to include those with social skill disabilities.

In Mark 7, Jesus says "You have a find way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions." Later he says, "Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that." Our social skill rules are simply traditions that might be changed for the greater good of including persons with skill deficits into our social enviornments. If we reject people with social skill deficits, we have sinned not they. Universal social design would seek to broaden the range of acceptable social skill such that people are not rejected but that the community learns to love, accept, integrate those with social impairments.

Mark Stephenson on February 5, 2014

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Jeff, thanks for this explanation and challenge to all of us who believe our own churches are "friendly" without realizing that we exclude people from relationships because they are not able to follow the social rules of our church.

You also raise an interesting question in your suggestion that "the reason for the exclusion of persons with disabilities from churches is social skill deficits." Do others of you have examples of people pushed to the margins of a church because they have social skill deficits?

Example of social deficit? Some people talk too much and drive others away, or drive them crazy by their lack of verbal discipline.  What would grace and truth look like in this scario?  

Mark Stephenson on February 6, 2014

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Doug, this is a great example, and a common one. I would suggest that no one is "driven away" by a person who talks too much, but they choose to walk away and stay away. It may be lack of verbal discipline, but as likely as not there could be many other factors involved in someone talking too much. So what can be done? Clearly, individuals need to help this person understand in a loving way that their not allowing others to get a word in edgewise is preventing them from hearing from others and learning from others who also have important things to say. Then those loving individuals would need to ask permission to give some sort of prompt when they are with the person who talks too much to remind them to stop speaking so that others can speak. As McNair says, the people who can adjust their social style need to do so to be able to lovingly interact with those who find this more difficult. 

This call to adjust our social style is not a call to abandon setting boundaries on what we will and will not accept as appropriate behavior. But it does call us to lovingly help people understand how their behavior affects others and to help them learn new and socially more effective behaviors. We might be tempted to say, "That's not my job," or "It's none of my business." But in the body of Christ, mentoring and being mentored are both called for in the pursuit of learning to love in a Christlike way. 

The hardest part about this is that it requires a lot of patience, but then imagine how we try God's patience every single day. If God is so patient with us, should we not also demonstrate some patience with others?

Thanks Mark.  That's helpful.  I think the incessant talker is a tricky one because there are so many different kinds of a talking person that pushes the boundaries of social acceptance.  The person who makes political comments assuming the listener is "on their side."  The person who talks with a critical or negative attitude is a way that drags a conversation down.  The person who doesn't necessarily talk too much, but who whose comments are off topic or tangentel to the direction of the conversation.  The argumentative talker, etc.  Lots of room for wisdom and discernment.

Mark Stephenson on February 7, 2014

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Yes, wisdom and discernment. Grace and patience. Truth and love. We all have our weaknesses and challenges. Barb Newman says that we're all puzzle pieces with green and pink parts. The green parts are things we're good at, and the pink parts are things we're not so good at. What a safe and delightful fellowship a church could be if EVERY one of us lived that out. The people with the greenest green parts never became prideful and were always willing to be ministered to by others. And the people with the pinkest pink parts always knew that their gifts were encouraged and well received by other members of the congregation. 

I had a person who could not speak! He come to stay with his extened family at my church. He was religated to the basement at the church he formerly attended. He could not talk but he loved the sing of sorts. The first day he attended  I thought there was something wrong with the organ and made a mentel note to talk to the organist. To my shame It turned out that it was his singing. We accepted his singing but made one change. He longingly watched the communion elements pass him by. so we had him make profession of faith so that he could partake of communion as well. He could not speak but understood very well. When I asked him during the profesion service "where is jesus"? He pointed to his heart! His family answwerd the rest of the questions for him and I think with him. He was blessed and we were blessed when he became a whole member of the congregation. Acceptance is a beautiful thing in the eyes of Jesus who asks us to accept people unconditionally.

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