By: Rev. Rebecca L. Holland, Disability Ministry Task Force, Chair
Ideas for Accessible Worship
“Although I was raised in the church, I no longer attend because I haven’t been able to find a church where my fiancé and I feel comfortable. We are both blind and every time we walk into a church people assume that we are looking for charity or some type of hand out.”
-Quinn Haberl, a young working professional who is blind
Creating an inclusive worship space is about more than just putting in an elevator or adding accessible elevators. It is wonderful if a church can make these physical changes, but it is important to create an environment where all people fell welcome.
I am a member of the National Federation of the Blind. I also have many friends who are blind, visually impaired, or have another disability. I asked Quinn Haberl, a young professional who was raised in a Christian home, why he no longer attends church. Quinn responded, “Although I was raised in the church, I no longer attend because I haven’t been able to find a church where my fiancé and I feel comfortable. We are both blind and every time we walk into a church people assume that we are looking for charity or some type of hand out. They want to pray for us because we are blind. I can tell that they don’t realize that we are both young professionals. You can pray for us, but don’t assume that we need prayer because we are blind. I am blind and happy. ”
Here are some ideas for how your church can start to make your worship services and other activities more inclusive for people with disabilities.
1. Basic hospitality goes a long way. Please do not stare, whisper, or make assumptions about people with disabilities.
This may seem like a simple and straightforward notion, but you would be surprised how many people react when they encounter a person with a disability. I encourage you to take some time to talk to your congregation about what it means to be a church that models radical hospitality. Train your greeters, ushers, and members of your hospitality team by teaching them never to pet a guide dog and touch a person without asking. Do not pet a guide dog (they’re working), grab a person who is blind, or touch someone’s wheelchair.
Teach your greeters not to shout when speaking to a person who is deaf. Shouting distorts your face and makes it harder for that person to read lips. Look directly at them when you are speaking. Do not assume that they are unable to communicate. If they are with an able bodied person, do not speak to that able bodied person instead of the person with a disability.
2. Please don’t give parents the stink eye if their children are acting out. Conversely, please don’t assume that a person with a disability wouldn’t make a good parent.
If you see children who are being loud or acting out, please don’t think negative thoughts about their parents. There is a possibility that the child who is being loud could have autism or other special needs. It can be very challenging for parents of children with special needs to bring their children to church. I have heard parents say that they feel as if they are “causing a disturbance.” I always try to assure parents that they are welcome. I encourage them to bring their children to worship. A supportive church family can make the world of difference in the life of any child, but I believe that it is especially important for children with special needs.
When considering families with disabilities, it is important to remember that people with disabilities can be wonderful parents. One wonderful example of this is one of my favorite authors, Jo Elizabeth Pinto. In her book, Daddy Won’t Let Mommy Drive the Car: True Tales of Parenting in the Dark (2019), Jo Elizabeth Pinto writes about her experience being a mother who is also blind. In one chapter, Pinto writes that after a terrible day that involved a gallon of milk exploding on the front porch, “I had a police officer and a social worker on my still milky doorstep, informing me that an anonymous caller said ‘the blind lady wasn’t coping well.’”
In response, she replied, “I would have coped a whole lot better if the anonymous caller had come to my aid, mop bucket in hand, maybe with a listening ear besides, instead of calling the social workers and the police.”
Thankfully, Pinto states that the case against her was closed due to the fact that it was unfounded; nevertheless, people with disabilities who are raising children are face a great deal of trial and adversity in today’s world. Sadly, people with disabilities are more likely to be viewed with suspicion and to have authorities called regarding their parenting because able bodied people have a hard time imagining how a person who is disabled would be able to raise a child.
A truly inclusive church is one in which people and families with disabilities can find love, support, and acceptance. The church should be a safe place for all families, not one more place where people with disabilities face more unfounded judgements.
3. Consider hiring an ASL interpreter, installing a hearing loop, or using some form of technology to provide captions.
According to Rev. Mary Dyer, a retired minister who is deaf and now has a cochlear implant, there are many roadblocks that prevent both clergy and laity from realizing and understanding the need for assistive listening technology. Rev. Dyer is a very strong advocate for hearing loops. A hearing loop is an assistive technology system that discreetly sends sound to the telecoil receiver in a person’s hearing device. Rev. Dyer writes, “We literally are not aware of the problems of those with hearing loss, unlike our awareness of physical access issues (Dyer, 2013).” Furthermore, she states that it is important to note that, “The people making decisions about accessible listening systems tend to be ‘hearing,’ rather than those who can directly benefit (ibid).”
As a person with low vision, I will confess that I still have a great deal to learn about creating an inclusive worship experience for people who are Deaf or hard of hearing. One of the greatest resources that I have found regarding information on this topic is The United Methodist Committee on Deaf and Hard of Hearing Ministries (www.umdeaf.org). I cannot recommend them highly enough and in an effort to “stay in my own lane,” I would like to encourage you to contact them if you have questions regarding ministry or outreach to the Deaf or hard of hearing community.
In the past, the Susquehanna Annual Conference, a large gathering with approximately two thousand people in attendance, has employed an experienced ASL interpreter for our worship services; however, employing an interpreter can be expensive. I understand that many small churches (including the two I serve in Pennsylvania) are unable to afford this cost. Sometimes, churches can find volunteers who are studying ASL in college to interpret services. In my humble opinion, this is a wonderful solution and can help to create a connection to the wider community. When word gets around that a church is providing ASL interpretation during worship, you never know who might show up on a Sunday morning.
If an ASL interpreter is not an option at this point for your church, you may want to consider the use of captioning. According to the United Methodist Committee on Deaf and hard of Hearing Ministries, “Captions are not only for Deaf people: a recent study indicates that 80% of users are not Deaf or hard-of-hearing. They are useful for people with mild hearing loss, and for those whose first language is not English (or whatever is used in a video). Captions have also been shown to increase understanding and retention for hearing people… Cost can be a problem. Despite technological advances, it’s still an intensely human activity. But there are ways to handle this. We first need to ask what value we place on a life. Also consider that captioning is a growing business. Could your congregation help someone get started as an outreach project? One of the most widely-used platforms, YouTube, can generate automatic captions. The accuracy of these captions varies, but there’s also an easy way to edit them (United Methodist Committee on Deaf and Hard of Hearing Ministries, 2019).”
Finally, it is important to notice that (as of the time of this writing) there are grants available for churches who want to extend outreach to the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Community. According to their website, “DHM provides opportunities for empowering Deaf, late-deafened, hard of hearing, and DeafBlind people through grants for projects and scholarships.” Some churches, such as First UMC in Clewistown, Florida, have also received grants for hearing loops. For further information, visit their website at UMDeaf.org or contact them at UMDeaf@gmail.com
4. Have large print hymnals and bulletins available. If you use visual aides such as pictures, take a moment to describe what is on the screen or the item you are holding.
Make sure that there are always at least three large print hymnals and three large print copies of the order of worship available. If there is only one large print hymnal, people will not take it because they are afraid of taking from someone who might “need it more.” If you use a slideshow, consider making the slides available online or e-mailing them to members of your congregation with low vision before the worship service.
Large print materials can also be helpful for people who are dyslexic. Make certain to use a font size that is at least fourteen points. Arial or any other font that is sans serif, such as Calibri or Tahoma, are fonts that are considered “easy to read” for people who have low vision or who are dyslexic. These fonts have wider spacing and the letters are less stylized than in Times New Roman.
Consider purchasing a braille Bible for your church. Although, please know that nowadays most people who read braille do so with a braille computer. This means that they probably have their own Bible already accessible on their handy piece of technology.
Technology is the way of the future, but not everyone can see a screen. If you use visual aids to illustrate your sermon, describe them to the congregation. For example, last Sunday I said, “I will leave you with one final story. Has anyone here ever attended a graduation? On the screen, you can see an image of a large group of students getting ready to graduate. They are dressed in caps and gowns and smiling. Graduation is a special time for many people.”
5. Gluten free options can help to make communion accessible for everyone. It is also important to bring the sacrament of communion to those who are not able to physically attend worship.
In the United Methodist Church, we believe that there are two sacraments: Holy Communion and Baptism. A sacrament is an outward sign of the inward working of God’s invisible and holy grace. “The Greek word used in the early church for sacrament is mysterion,” and is usually translated as “mystery (General Conference of the United Methodist Church, 2004).” We believe that God is truly present in the sacraments, but the exact way in which God is present is a Holy Mystery. “Through the sacraments, God discloses things that are beyond human capacity to know through reason alone (ibid).” Jesus Christ gave the sacraments to the church and Christ himself “is the ultimate manifestation of a sacrament (ibid).” It is important to note that “the church itself is sacramental,” because we are called to be Christ’s hands and feet in the world, redeemed by Christ’s blood (ibid).
Christ reveals himself to us in the sacraments through visible elements such as water and bread. Holy Communion is the sacrament that sustains and nourishes us in our journey of salvation. When we gather at the Lord’s Table, we are nourished both physically and spiritually.
I am always touched on a deep spiritual level when I preside at the Lord’s Table, yet I find myself moved in an especially profound way when I have the opportunity to take the sacrament of Holy Communion to hospitals and nursing homes. When we gather at the Lord’s Table, I find myself in awe at how God uses simple and ordinary items like a small cup of grape juice and a piece of bread to make the presence of Christ known to us. I have learned that God’s Table does not always look like a beautiful oak table at the front of a sanctuary; instead, it frequently looks like a small table with wheels by a hospital bed, or the corner of a bureau in a nursing home. Holy Communion is a physical reminder that God is with us, even during our darkest and most lonely times (Psalm 23.4).
Everyone is welcome at God’s table. You do not need to be a specific age or even a church member in order to receive Holy Communion. Having a gluten free option available helps to ensure that even people who are allergic to gluten can still partake of the Eucharist. We also use grape juice instead of wine in the United Methodist Church. We choose to use grape juice because this helps to ensure that people who are struggling with addiction issues will not be exposed to alcohol. Holy Communion should never be a stumbling block.
If you are the one presiding at the table, consider giving clear verbal instructions for how people are invited to participate in Holy Communion. Not everyone can see your hand gestures or the ushers. Make sure to give concrete directions that are easy to understand. For example, I frequently give the following instructions on Sunday mornings, “Today we will be receiving by intinction. This means that you will be offered a piece of the host and then you will have the opportunity to dip the host into the cup. The ushers will invite you to come forward by rows. If you would like a gluten free option, please let me know when you reach the front of the line. After you have received, you may kneel at the communion rail and say a prayer or return to your seat and pray silently.”
In conclusion, I hope that these ideas will help to inspire you to think of ways your church can be more inclusive to people with disabilities. If you ever want to be helpful to a person with a disability but are unsure how to do so, simply ask that person. For example, when I am lost in a strange place, such as a church where I have never been, I am always thankful when someone shows me to the sanctuary and helps me to find a seat. However, some people prefer to do things independently. Every person is unique. People with disabilities are an important part of the body of Christ. We are all children of God and we are all made in God’s image.
Dyer, Mary. (26 November 2013) “Please Hear Those of Us Who Cannot.” Sojourners Magazine. Retrieved from: https://sojo.net/articles/please-hear-those-us-who-cant
Pinto, Jo Elizabeth. (2019) Daddy Won’t Let Mommy Drive the Car: True Tales of Parenting in the Dark. Kindle eBook.
The United Methodist Church. (2004). This Holy Mystery: A United Methodist understanding of Holy Communion. The General Board of Discipleship of the United Methodist Church: Apple iBook.
The United Methodist Committee on Deaf and Hard of Hearing Ministries. (2019). “Captions.” Retrieved from: https://www.umdeaf.org/atech/caption.html?fbclid=IwAR1ooTKyHuZuzkcaf5o5L1Nhg5b0PZD2N9SOHdbuZIBrY5XEAcapEGYWdXk
The United Methodist Committee on Deaf and Hard of Hearing Ministries. (2019) “Grants and ScholarshipsRetrieved from: https://www.umdeaf.org/fund.html?fbclid=IwAR10Uke5fF-7kQo9I1mtRijA45HXHfmiqlJdH0NxS3ABSGw5AkS-9EHzL7s
This essay and many others like it are available in my new book The United Methodist Church and Disability: Essays and Practical Tips for Clergy, Churches, and People with Disabilities.
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