Embracing Disability in Congregations

April 27th, 2011

Although most of my days are filled with the busyness of a career and the joy of friends, family, and fun, part of having a disability for me has meant doctor’s appointments, tests, and surgeries. Having the faith that God is with me during those times has filled me with peace and comfort. Studies have shown that people with medical difficulties who have some kind of faith background often fare better than those who do not. If we as a community of faith believe that attending a church is a vital part of faith formation, it stands to reason that we should make our churches as accommodating to those with disabilities as possible.

I have been a part of a church for essentially my entire life, and I’m proud to say that, while certainly some negative experiences stand out, there are many positive ways that churches have embraced my disability and I encourage other churches to put into practice.

Before They Come

Unfortunately, a lot of churches don’t see the necessity of making accessibility changes if they don’t currently know someone in the congregation who has a disability. The problem comes when there is a visitor with a disability or even a long-time member of the congregation who suddenly acquires a disability. The inaccessible bathrooms, the stairs to the choir loft and fellowship hall, the narrow, heavy entrance door, and scarce accessible parking gives them an impression of inaccessibility before they’ve even had the opportunity to be welcomed by members, to learn about the ministries of the church, or to hear the sermon. In order to be inclusive of people with disabilities, the changes have to be made before the person with a disability visits and already feels excluded.

I was recently talking with a friend about her family’s difficulty finding a church home that was accessible for their middle school-aged son. He was excited about joining the youth group, but the churches they tried didn’t have an accessible youth area. While these churches were probably wonderful places of worship, their family left before they were able to fully experience the church.

My current church has been absolutely amazing about adapting to my disability, and it started the minute I came in the door. For starters, I could actually park my car and make it in the door! The first time that I attended the worship service, I was greeted by the senior pastor. Right away, he made sure to acknowledge that their current chancel wasn’t accessible. They were in the process of building a new sanctuary that would have a ramp up to the chancel, and he let me know that he would love for me to help with worship at any time and that it would be really easy once the building was complete. Making these changes towards accessibility does take time, but what is most important is a willingness to do so and a plan to get it done, and this church had both in place. I appreciated that he not only was honest in acknowledging that the current surroundings were less than ideal but also that he connected the accessibility concern with my interest level in continuing to attend and that he was eager to keep me as a lasting part of the church.

I have been to so many churches where the chancel or stage area wasn’t accessible, so someone with a disability would have a really hard time participating in parts of the worship service. Investing in a place where you know that participation in certain things will always be off limits because of accessibility is certainly a defeating feeling that often leads people elsewhere. Churches should be open to full participation in worship regardless of ability level, and these kinds of accessibility constraints are crucial to how welcome someone with a disability feels.

Beyond Accessibility to Inclusion

Aside from the physical accessibility of the church building, and of even greater importance, another challenge for many churches is making their programs inviting and accommodating to people with disabilities. A big part of accomplishing that goal comes through remembering that people with disabilities have the same desires to be seen as both capable individuals and part of the congregation as everyone else.

At many churches that I have visited, there was an overwhelming feeling that people needed to “do something” to help me. Things like “Let me open the door for you,” “Let me help you to your seat,” “Do you need a hymnal?” “Can you see from here?” “Do you need me to show you where the bathroom is?” “Do you need help getting Communion?” are all great questions to ask, but when you’re the only one being asked these questions and they’re all rapidly fired your way, it can leave you feeling like you have a sign hanging over your head announcing that you’re different from everyone else. I think that those questions are all extremely well-intended and come out of Jesus’ command to help the less fortunate, but the needs of people with disabilities, particularly when it comes to church, aren’t really that different from those of everyone else.

At one point, I regularly attended a large church with fixed pews in the sanctuary. Each week, I went to Sunday school before the service and then our class would sit together in worship. We had a fairly large class, and I found friendships with many people in the group. We had a certain section where our class sat and could easily be found, a tradition that began even before I came around. I sat on the end of the row in a large aisle so that I didn’t block access to other pews. As I was getting settled, the usher in that section approached me every week asking if I would like to sit in the wheelchair section. Every week, I declined his offer, but he kept asking. The wheelchair section was very small, so it wouldn’t accommodate my whole class, and I didn’t want to sit there by myself away from the people with whom I was becoming friends. The usher was so persistent that it not only bothered me, but it really agitated the people around me, too. I know that I was sitting in the aisle a little, but the usher’s insistence in asking me about my seating arrangements made me feel like I “stuck out” even more. I eventually found somewhere else to worship where I was not made to feel "in the way" for being a social member of the congregation.

In contrast, where I attend church now, I have never felt as though my disability was the thing that people thought defined me. Churches must show sensitivity and compassion to someone with a disability, but it’s the way in which it’s done that makes the difference. When I came to church the first time, I was asked if I had a good place to sit, and after I said that I did, it was never brought up again. The same goes for Communion. The first time, I was asked if I would rather go down the aisle with everyone else (as opposed to having the elements brought to me), and when I said that I would, it wasn’t an issue going forward.

When I gave our Children’s Message the first time, I got there a little early to work out the best place for me to sit and how I would get the microphone, and it was taken care of and went off without a hitch. When I went on our all-church retreat, someone from the church staff called to talk about the accessibility accommodations available, but it wasn’t something that people blew out of proportion. I am never offended if someone has a question pertaining to my disability, but it’s only when I feel like my opinions aren’t being heard that I become frustrated. If there is a concern about something relating to my disability, they know that they can come to me in a private or informal way, and I also know that I can come to them if I have any concerns of my own.

Unique and Beloved Children of God

My personal experiences relate to physical disabilities, but I also wanted to say a word about accommodating those with cognitive and social disabilities because I have observed that my church also does this well. Shortly after I started attending, the church held its annual children’s music program. Traditionally, the older children have the biggest speaking parts, and that year, one of the older children was a girl who has a cognitive disability. She had become a beloved member of the congregation through the way that she loved to be involved in activities with her peers and through her social personality. The staff had always found ways for her to be involved in the church, and having a speaking part during the program would be no different. While memorizing lines was difficult for her, she was a wonderful reader, so she had her lines written and laid on one of the props so that she could read them when the time came. Another student helped by cueing her when her when it was time to speak. Through a little creativity and focusing on the student as a beloved and capable child of God, rather than on how these changes might detract from the aesthetics of the program, she was upheld as a valuable and capable member of the congregation.

Trusting that someone with a disability can realize and take care of their own needs is like trusting in the abilities that God has given them. The Bible says that God has given everyone unique abilities. If those abilities were good enough to be given by God, then it’s important to embrace those abilities rather than the disabilities and inabilities that the world often sees. Making people with disabilities feel welcome and embraced in the church may take a little extra thought and effort, but the richness that it brings to the life of the church creates abundant opportunities for the entire congregation to experience Christ and his love in new ways that add an important and lasting aspect to faith formation.

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