As Christians, we know that church should be a place where everyone is made to feel welcome. We read in the Bible that Jesus invites all to come to his banquet: young, old, sick, those with a disability, broken hearted … And so, our church doors need to be fully open—not simply places for ‘easy to manage’ people.
But are we doing enough to ensure people of all abilities feel at home in our churches?
A personal experience
As a person with a disability, I’ve heard the phrase, “But we have a wheelchair ramp…” said way too often when the topic of accessibility comes up. While a ramp is a great start, its not a guaranteed way to being truly accessible.
Or maybe you’ve heard this one: “But we don’t have people who have [insert disability] at our church”. There could be a reason for that. In fact, it is common for someone to dismiss a church based on what they know about accessibility of the place.
Every church should have the ability in some form or another to be accessible to all people. Granted you might find difficulties, but each church can make a difference with a few minor adjustments.
Here are some ideas I've come up with that would hopefully incur no cost, or at least be within the church budget.
Have a page on your website with photos to show accessibility
Often parents or older people with a disability will research a place online to check out how accessible the place is. They rely on photos of the facilities to figure out if the church is wheelchair accessible, easy to access/find and safe for their child who may abscond. Have a direct link on the website entitled ‘Accessibility’
Print a few different news sheets
Printing the news sheet or sermon on A3 paper is ideal for people who may struggle to see. Likewise, printing out the sermon can be helpful for people who struggle to hear. Larger font would be helpful for those who have difficulty with their vision. Even if these extra print-outs don’t get taken for a while, having them there on offer shows your intention to care in advance to those who may need it.
Have a spare copy of the sermon on hand, just in case someone who has problems with their hearing comes in, or at least have the ability to quickly print out a copy. If you’re a church who’s engaged in technology, perhaps you could have on your church app access to sermon notes. If you’re a church who films their sermons you may be able to look into creating subtitles.
I’ve seen the struggle of some of those who can’t keep up with the Bible passages being read out. One church I used to belong to placed bookmarks in their Bibles for the readings. This was a great service to those who had a hard time locating the passages. For larger congregations, an option may be to set aside 10 Bibles or so, and have them reserved for people who may need them.
Keep your ramps and surfaces easy to navigate
If you have the ability to do building upgrades, it would be good to ensure that the ramp complies with building codes and standards. Make sure that there are no bumps on the way (especially with door tracks), and there’s plenty of room on either side of a wheelchair to ease the access into the building.
Offer alternate and inclusive ways of participating
Adjust a program if need be. Never get the person who needs extra attention or who is in a wheelchair to sit out of the game or activity to make things easier for those organising the activities. Chances are, they will want to join in too!
Language and speech
Be mindful of the words and language you use when referring to accessibility or those who have a disability. Never use derogatory terms, even as banter amongst friends. When talking to those who have a disability, speak to them as you would anyone else.
People who have a disability may like to be included in the service with such things as Bible readings or prayers. If they’re in a wheelchair, allow for them to be able to participate from the seating area. If they have trouble reading the set prayers, allow them to construct their own prayers. Some may like to help out with tasks such as sides-people or welcoming. Maybe they need a support person as they carry out these tasks, but it would be such a joy to be able to serve.
It’s very daunting coming to the church for the first time for anyone. But for a family who has a child with a disability, there are added stresses of being able to manage behaviours or their child having good relationships with the people in church. Be assuring to these families, especially if they’re feeling embarrassed for any reason.
Bec Baines is the Children's Minister at St Clement’s Anglican Church, Mosman