This semester, I have been doing a project for my Worship and Preaching class on how we include people of varying abilities into our church body. This process has included doing much reading as well as several interviews. I have been very blessed to interview people who are wheelchair users with quadriplegic limitations, who have developmental disabilities, and who have visual or hearing impairments.
From these brothers and sisters I have learned that many abled ones do not attend church, not because they don’t wish to have a powerful and moving experience with the Creator, but because they simply cannot attend. It is expensive for churches to hire signing interpreters and many churches would have to be remodeled to be truly wheelchair accessible. It is unfortunate, but a reality, that when churches or denominational structures (it does not matter which denomination) decide to cut funding abled ministries are often among the first to go. It is also increasingly harder to foster a sense of community and connection when it comes to global conferences.
When I think back on my years of professional schooling, I realize, that it has not been until very recently that I have begun to wonder about the connection of theoretical learning and practical application when it comes to making churches accessible to people with disabilities. Unfortunately, many schools simply lack the resources that they need in order to offer a disability studies major in a ministry setting. Nevertheless, I have learned that there are things that any aspiring pastor or missional leader can do in order to become more aware of people with disabilities in our church. I would like to share them here:
1) Get to know the abled ones in your congregation or context. Ask them about worship and what is meaningful or not meaningful about it. Listen to their story. When you are “interviewing” others do not focus on the disability or what makes them “different”, focus on them as a person. Speak to them the way you would to any other friend or peer.
2) If you are a pastor who is wondering what it would be like to be a wheelchair user in the congregation, then do this simple exercise which was first suggested to me by a brother who had quadriplegic limitations: spend the day in a wheelchair and put about 3 marbles in each foot so that if you are tempted to stand up, you won’t be able to.
3) I would encourage everyone to take a signing (ASL) course or another course that would increase awareness of our brothers and sisters with disabilities.
4) Use inclusive liturgies (or write your own) in order to raise awareness.
These are all small things that sometimes make a world of a difference in the life of our abled brothers and sisters. Most important of all, though, is to remember that abled ones are just that – they are able. This is perhaps the key to building an inclusive church – doing away with unnecessary barriers or the “us” versus “them” mentality and simply being and living in community.