Friday, February 1, 2013

Your Church and Persons with Disabilities: Merely Access or Full Inclusion?

by Rev. Laura Barclay

I recently received a copy of the American Baptist home Mission Societies’ newsletter, The Christian Citizen, with the focus “Disability Ministry: From Access to Inclusion.” There was not only an abundance of ideas and practical information for how to become a more welcoming congregation for persons with disabilities, but also helpful articles that engage the imagination of readers without disabilities on what it would be like for a disabled person to walk into their congregation. One chaplain, Bill Gaventa, relates the following on page five:

“What we most want,” I have so often heard [from persons with disabilities], “is simply to be included in what is already there.” The place to begin, therefore, in ministries with people with disabilities and their families is not a new “special” ministry that is tacked onto the church. That approach can be derailed by first raising feelings of inadequacy among members about the skills they assume are necessary to include people with special needs. It is better to begin by talking with individuals and families about what they need and want and then taking a good look at what the church already offers. Then ask, “Why does anyone come? What are the gifts resident in the faith community and the congregation’s dream of this life and mission together? People with disabilities and their families say, “We want a place that is safe, sanctuary, a place of welcome and acceptance, a place where we can worship and learn, a place where we can both participate in and contribute to the life of a faith community.” That’s not so different from most other people!”

Keeping in mind the idea of providing sanctuary for persons with disabilities and provide inclusion in activities and initiatives already taking place in your congregations, ask, “How welcoming is my congregation? Do we have persons with intellectual and physical disabilities in our congregations? How do they feel when they are at church? How can we be more welcoming?”

After brainstorming, review some of the fantastic tips below provided by The Christian Citizen on how to become a more inclusive and inviting congregation for persons with disabilities. What would it look like to embrace these ideas in your congregation?

*Consider installing lifts instead of traditional elevators in older churches for cost-effective inclusion (pg 6).

*For vision and hearing-impaired members (a number that will increase as your congregation ages), consider using projection equipment for announcements, song lyrics, congregations responses, Scripture lessons and sermon outlines. Consider also using an adaptive listening system (pg 6-7).

*Some church use American Sign Language interpreters in their service. Is there anyone in your congregation who is fluent and willing to volunteer (pg 7).

*Create opportunities for employers in your congregation to connect with those with disabilities who are underemployed or unemployed. Create employment opportunities in the church itself (pg 1).

*The Interfaith Disability Advocacy Coalition (IDAC) is spearheading an effort to raise awareness of and support for employment of people with disabilities through a solidarity statement. Encourage your congregation to endorse this effort and implement its provisions ( (pg 1).

*Support members and visitors with disabilities who are out of work with specific advice and training, supervised volunteer opportunities and introductions to those who make hiring decisions (pg 11).

*Hire qualified people with disabilities as ordained leaders, religious educators, musical directors, communicators, administrators, support staff, technical support and maintenance workers (pg 11).

*If you have returning veterans in your church, consider that loud bands can trigger PTSD. Consider a more contemplative approach to worship (pg 19).

Whatever you choose to do or are already doing in your congregation to provide the welcome of Christ to all persons, may God bless your efforts with reconciliation, inclusion, and relationship building that strengthens the body of Christ that is the church. Let us remember the words of the Apostle Paul, who said in 1 Corinthians 12, “There should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.” Let us always remember those who may suffer within and outside of our churches who feel the pain of division because of our failure to extend the welcome of Christ.

To read this edition of The Christian Citizen to learn more about creative an inclusive community, click here

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