Five Simple Steps to Make Sunday Worship More Accessible for the Disabled
All are welcome. This sentence adorns the signs and websites of countless churches throughout America. We invite our friends and neighbors as well as those living in our communities to join us for worship. Our hospitality and welcome ministries help guests navigate their way through our facilities and to hopefully engage in worship with the gathered church. Many churches have done a great job of opening the front door and extending an invitation to the world around them. But once our guests come into our worship gathering, will they find it accessible to them?
Accessibility in church often means having an automatic door, ramps, an elevator, or a hearing loop. While these accommodations are important, each will require time and money to implement. Yet people with varying disabilities may be present in your congregation this Sunday. Surely there is something which could be done to help make the worship service more accessible immediately and not require an overt amount of time or money.
Serving people in our congregation who have disabilities and making worship accessible to them has become a high priority in ministry for me since my middle son Andrew was diagnosed with autism in 2001. As parents, my wife and I struggled to help Andrew understand what behaviors were appropriate in the service and what he could expect during the 75-90 minutes of church. In the process of shepherding my own son in worship, my eyes were opened to the spectrum of disabilities throughout our congregation and the varying needs present each Sunday as we gathered for worship.
We have ramps, automatic doors, and a hearing loop, but those tools are only part of the solution towards becoming an accessible church. We began to look at ways we engaged the congregation in worship, delivered print materials for the service, and what potential sensory needs might be addressed. The remainder of this article lists ideas we have implemented or are in the process of implementing to help persons with disabilities to fully participate in our worship services.
Growing up in church, I often heard the song leader invite the congregation to stand, take their hymnals, and turn to a particular hymn. For most people, this invitation was quite appropriate. But for those who may use wheelchairs or others who simply may have difficulty standing for the extended time of singing in church, this invitation meant they could not fully participate. Unintentionally, people with certain disabilities are excluded when the congregation is invited to stand.
One solution could be to never stand in church, but without going to extremes, I would like to propose another solution. Rather than asking the congregation to stand, we have begun to say. “Would you please rise in body or in spirit.” This simple phrase might seem hokey to some, but once this invitation is given, everyone in the gathered church is included.
The person in a wheelchair, the high school athlete who just tore ligaments in her knee, and the senior adult who simply cannot stand as long as he once did are all automatically included. A person can respond to this invitation by physically standing or they can respond by perhaps sitting up a little straighter on the outside, or on the inside. A simple change in the phrases we use can dramatically increase accessibility in our services.
Accessible Sermon Notes
Many churches provide sermon notes. The options for sermon notes may be an outline, a Scripture with a blank page, or in some cases a full manuscript. I personally feel a full manuscript is the best if the pastor preaches from a manuscript as it helps those who get distracted to find their place and see what they may have missed while distracted. A full manuscript also reinforces in written form the exposition which has been received verbally. Regardless of which sermon note tool is chosen, it can be helpful for people who aren’t accustomed to listening to one person speak for 30-45 minutes. We have found for my son with autism, having the sermon manuscript allows him to stay attentive during the sermon as he can see the big picture of where the message is going.
Sermon notes alone, whichever the variety, can also be exclusive to those with visual impairments. Often the font size used for church bulletins and sermon notes is simply too small for some people in the congregation to read. As I have entered into my 50s, I increasingly find the need for more light and larger fonts in order to read successfully. Two alternate methods of delivery for sermon notes could make a significant difference for those with a visual impairment.
One method is to simply print a few copies of the notes but in dramatically larger fonts. Just like choosing a large print Bible, some in the congregation will naturally pick up large print notes or a large print bulletin. This solution seems easy enough except you have no idea how many large print editions you will need. Thus, you either run out, or make too many.
Another method is to provide digital access to your sermon notes. We make this accommodation utilizing the YouVersion Bible App. After creating a free account, you can upload your sermon notes, scripture passage, song lyrics, and any other important pieces of information for the congregation. Since many people bring their phones or tablets to church, they can access the notes through the app. As most personal devices have settings for accessibility, the notes will appear as large as needed and without the need for brighter external lighting.
Delivering sermon notes in accessible packaging can be accomplished with little time and minimal effort. I spend only ten minutes per week importing our liturgy, song lyrics, and sermon notes into YouVersion. Yet accessible sermon notes allow not only those with disabilities, but everyone in the congregation to engage with the service more fully.
Printed Order of Services
In many churches today, the practice of including the order of service in the bulletin has fallen out of favor. The need to list hymn numbers and scripture references no longer exists as we can display all texts on the screens with our projectors. Could there be some benefit by the return of the practice of printing the entire liturgy? Will going “old school” help our church be more accessible? The answer is emphatically, “yes!”
For some people with autism, the need for routine and a clear communication of what is coming next are helpful accommodations for appropriate behavior. Not knowing the next element in a series of events in the church service can be a source of anxiety and a trigger for inappropriate behaviors. Simply providing a written order of worship can allow the person to see the flow and know what to expect next in the service.
We discovered the importance of supplying a detailed order of service when Andrew was about 10 years old. Andrew has perfect pitch and loves to listen to worship music. We were singing a song from Chris Tomlin in church when all of a sudden, Andrew yells from the second row, “We can’t sing in that key! That’s the wrong key!” Andrew expected us to sing in the same key he had heard Chris Tomlin use, but I had chosen to sing in a key where everyone in the congregation could hit the high notes. From that day forward, Andrew was provided with a detailed order of service so he could know what to expect, including, in which key a song would be sung.
The delivery format can be a simple page, perhaps on the back of the sermon notes which gives the order of events and song titles. You could also choose to make copies of the Planning Center Service available to the congregation. A third option is to make the order of service available digitally either through the Planning Center Online app or by attaching an order to the live service on the YouVersion app.
Providing the order of worship allows the congregation to know where you are going and what they can expect each step of the way. You open the door for more people to fully participate and help to minimize anxiety for some.
Accessible Seating Space
Seating in our church auditoriums has been the object of many jokes as we talk about, “someone sitting in my pew.” If a person in a wheelchair comes into our worship space, will they know where to park their wheelchair? Is designated space available near the front so a person utilizing a wheelchair can fully participate without the visual impairment of people standing in front of them and without blocking an aisle and creating a traffic jam or worse yet, a fire hazard?
Creating space by either moving chairs or removing a pew communicates a warm welcome and allows the person using the wheelchair to participate without distraction. Depending on the design of the building space, the front area may not be the best option. Find a place where an individual can sit and see both the platform and screen clearly while someone in front of them is standing. This place is likely a good spot for accessible seating.
Another thought in regard to seating is designating a space as fragrance free. Many in our churches have allergies. Some allergies are simply nuisances, but others can be life threatening. About four years ago, my wife developed an allergy to life threatening cinnamon. During the Christmas season, we find it necessary to avoid certain shopping centers where cinnamon is diffused and certain people who wear a cinnamon fragrance. It is a life or death issue for my wife. We are proactive to avoid contamination. It is most helpful when churches, or any other public space for that matter, designate areas as fragrance free to accommodate people with allergies.
Teaching our children to behave in church is a task in which every parent engages. For this task to be successful, expectations must be clear. In working with children on the autism spectrum, it is important for the child to understand the appropriate expectation for the given context. One helpful tool is a social narrative, which is a detailed story describing a situation and offering concrete cues for appropriate behavior. Social narratives do not have to be long but can be concise and simple. They must always be true and are best written in first person. The purpose for writing the narrative is to improve social understanding and allow the individual to appropriately participate in the activity.
A social narrative might be useful to explain to a non-baptized congregant, in this case a child, why they cannot partake of the elements in communion while others around participate.
Here is an example of a social narrative my wife used to explain communion:
As I go to the church service in the auditorium, I follow my schedule. One part of my schedule says communion. Communion is a special part of the service to remember Jesus Christ and that He gave His body and blood to pay for my sins. People in my congregation take one piece of bread and one small cup of juice. It is not a snack. It is a special part of the service. One of the rules of communion is that you have to be baptized to take the bread and juice. I have not been baptized. Mom and Dad want to talk to me about that decision. Until I am baptized, I cannot have the bread or the juice. I will sit quietly while Mom and Dad have their bread and juice. I can pray, draw a picture of communion, or another quiet activity that Mom or Dad says is okay.
A social narrative might also be useful in helping identify appropriate responses when the individual is bored or distracted during a sermon or extended testimony. Here is a social narrative written to help a child attend when they are bored:
I like going to church. I like my pastor. He helps me to learn about God. Sometimes his sermons are long because he is teaching people who have gone to church a long time and want to learn even more about God. When I have to sit for a long time, I can get bored. I need a plan for what to do when I get bored. It is important to have a quiet mouth and a calm body while I sit. I can keep a paper and pen to draw a picture or just scribble. I can have a fidget toy, but it should not light up or make noise. If I sit near a door and at the end of the row, I can get up to go to the bathroom or get a drink one time. If I can tell it is going to be very hard for me to have a quiet mouth and calm body, I can show Mom or Dad my break picture. They will help me choose one of my activities or decide if I need to take a walk.
A social narrative can be written for any aspect of the service or to address any behavior present. The narrative may be especially helpful for children with autism. Pictures within the narrative are also helpful to give a visual representation of the expectation.
Accommodating individuals with disabilities is a gospel issue. We are either making room for the stranger or telling him to go away. By not making necessary accommodations, the church is in danger of showing partiality to those who are abled and is violating the spirit communicated by James in his letter to the church.
My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “You sit here in a good place,” while you say to the poor man, “You stand over there,” or, “Sit down at my feet,” have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? (Jas 2:1-4) ESV
Accessibility means making space for people with disabilities to be fellow disciples, to fully engage in the church. The call for accessibility is about growing the body of Christ to maturity by allowing each person to have the fullest experience possible in corporate worship. It is about the gospel and the glory of God. Before we put “All Are Welcome,” on the sign in front of the church, we should be sure all truly are welcome.