Do we think that uneven ground or mountains and valleys can restrict God's travel? No, Isaiah spoke the Word of God, saying: "Make a level highway in the wilderness for our God. Every valley will be raised up, and every mountain and hill will be flattened. Uneven ground will become level, and rough terrain a valley plain." [Isaiah 40:3b-4] Isaiah called on us to clear the way so that coming into the presence of God is accessible to all. If access to God is restricted, so is discipleship.
Many people with disabilities never go to church. They either cannot get there or they cannot get in. Many do not feel welcome at church. Some cannot hear the message. Others cannot read the words on the screen to participate. Some cannot obey the unwritten rules. Others simply cannot sit quiet and still for an hour or more. Some cannot understand what is happening.
As your church plans to develop or improve upon its worship facility, remember that people with disabilities can love, and they all have a need for God. Accommodate their presence in your church since, without exception, all belong to God regardless of ability or difference.
TAKE INVENTORY OF YOUR FACILITY
To be a welcoming church, we need to anticipate the needs of visitors. Remember, "If people can't go, they won't come." So, meeting people's needs is essential.
Walk around your facility and take note. Are there enough accessible parking places? Is it safe and easy for people who use wheelchairs to get from the parking place to the worship center? If the obvious path is not accessible, is there a sign to the accessible path? Do doors open easily and are they wide enough? Are restrooms accessible?
SPECIAL NEEDS WILL VARY
There are many types of disabilities, and no two people are the same. So, it is always best to ask about individual needs. Here are are some starting thoughts: Visual Impairment Are large-print worship programs available? If everything visual is only available on the screen, remember that people with limited vision cannot see that far. They need something in their hands that shows them everything that is projected. Some people will also need Braille materials or to have things e-mailed to them so an application on their tablet or phone can read it to them.
Hearing Impairment If people cannot hear the message, they will stop coming to church, so install an assistive listening system to help those who are hard-of-hearing. For those who are deaf, provide a sign language interpreter or use live captioning. Live captioning is also helpful to the hard-of-hearing.
ADHD & Learning Disabilities For those who do not know what is expected of them, who cannot sit still, or who do not understand, patience is important. Enlist a companion who can quietly explain what to do next. Perhaps there can be pictures or symbols added to the worship folder for those who cannot read. Problems can be alleviated if the service is designed well, with times to stand and move and make noise and with ways to use all five senses and movement as well. Foster a church culture that is accepting of diverse ways of learning and worshipping.
Autism Some people, including those with autism, may become overstimulated by the sights and sounds and the number of people in worship. Provide a "Quiet Room" so they have a space to decompress. This is not the same as a Cry Room for infants. It is a place to go and then choose to come back. Another hospitable idea is to provide (or allow) "fidgets"—- objects such as stress balls, manipulative toys, Koosh balls, etc. that meet the needs for sensory stimulation. They have a calming effect and allow people with ADHD or autism to focus longer.
People with disabilities leave a congregation because they do not feel welcome or they cannot serve the way they feel called to do or because they do not feel that they belong. Too many times, they are asked to leave. This should never happen.
When planning for your worship facility, find a way let God make the way for you be an accessible church open to all.
SHARON MCCART is chair of the DisAbility Ministries Committee of The United Methodist Church (umdisability.org) and facilitator of the DisAbility Ministries Task Force, California-Pacific Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.