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Lindsay Wieland Capel on Disability and Universal Design

Many ideas for welcoming and including people with disabilities are remarkably simple. These changes turn out to be good for everyone in church worship and congregational life.

Lindsay Wieland Capel helps churches become more accessible and welcoming to people with disabilities through her role as a disability consultant with Thrive, an agency of the Christian Reformed Church in North America. Capel’s goal is for churches to be places where everybody belongs and everybody serves. In this edited conversation, Capel talks about how universal design can help churches do better at including and receiving from people with disabilities.

How do you define disability?

Disability is harder to define than you’d think. There are legal definitions, such as criteria for qualifying for benefits, but most people use a broader definition. When we talk about disability, we are usually thinking of people who have a physical, mental, intellectual, developmental, and/or sensory disability. Many people with health conditions don’t consider themselves to have a disability even though they may need accommodations in their daily life. Similarly, those who develop disabilities with aging and those with mental health disorders might not identify as having a disability.

What about the oft-repeated statistic that 15 to 20 percent of the world’s population lives with disability?

I suspect that number is low. In my previous work in mental health, we said that 20 percent of people have a mental health disorder. It’s hard to get accurate numbers because there are so many different factors in how people define disability and whether or not someone identifies as being disabled or as having a disability.

The majority of disabilities are actually non-apparent. Along with many other disability advocates, I’ve started using the term “apparent or non-apparent” disabilities. It’s more inclusive and also points to the fact that there are disabilities that we can perceive without seeing, such as a speech difference. Many people say that if you live long enough, you’ll acquire a disability. It’s also been said that it’s the only minority community that anyone can join at any time.

What can churches do better to welcome people with disabilities?

We recommend a two-way, both/and approach. First, explore adding more universal design elements. Second, get to know who’s in your church. Universal design offers flexibility and choices whenever possible to create a more welcoming and accessible environment. It turns out that adding a universal design element to help people with certain disabilities ends up benefiting everyone. 

For example, it’s helpful to provide a variety of seating options in your worship spaces. You want to create cutouts in a variety of places, whether that requires shortening pews, removing auditorium seating, or merely removing chairs from rows. I recommend having some cutouts that are open but also having some that have different kinds of chairs—chairs with arms, chairs that are wider or taller, and adjustable office desk chairs. I have back issues and often find it hard to sit for a long time. Sometimes I need to go stand in the back during a service. It really helps me to have an adjustable office chair. 

Do churches ever object to flexible seating for reasons other than cost?

A lot of what makes a church welcoming or not has to do with culture. In a congregation that values aesthetic uniformity, offering many kinds of seating may look disorganized. We hear concerns like it might mess up the placement of bows for weddings. Perhaps your church has always asked people to stand on the platform or podium when they get confirmed or make profession of faith because you see standing as a sign of respect. It takes a cultural change to see that it’s not disrespectful to put a chair up there for someone who can’t stand for very long. 

I encourage churches to consider what their physical space communicates. Does someone who uses a wheelchair or walker have choices of where to sit in the sanctuary? Can their loved one(s) sit with them? Can they still see when everyone stands up? Can they read scripture or preach a sermon from the same place as everyone else. 

How else might church culture do more to accommodate people in different bodies or with different abilities?

A family may come in late to church and be shamed for that. But what you don’t see is how challenging it was for them to get out the door given their situation. Or someone may get stared at or even asked to leave for moving a lot in worship or making noises, maybe because they have autism or Tourette syndrome. But if you get to know them, you’ll see that they’re not being disrespectful in worship. This is the body they’re in. Different bodies and minds have different needs. It’s important to hold culture loosely to hold space for everyone to participate.

Can you share more tips on how universal design can benefit all worshipers?

Many churches started offering virtual worship, adult education, and meetings during the COVID-19 pandemic. Continuing to offer these choices is good for everyone, including people with disabilities. It’s even better to activate closed captioning during videos and online worship. This helps people who are hard of hearing, people who are learning a new language, and it can help all of us absorb the information better. Zoom, YouTube, and most major platforms have easy ways to do this through the settings menu.

A classic groaner for disability advocates is when the leader of a meeting or adult education points to a microphone and says, “I’m not sure I need this. Can everyone hear me?” Some people who do need to hear amplified speech won’t answer—either because they can’t hear you or don’t want to be a burden. The universal design solution is to always use the microphone. Remember that not everyone can easily walk to a microphone in front or up on a platform to share their comments, so it’s good to have someone prepared to walk around with a cordless mic so that more people can give input. At first this may require intentionality. You may have to insist on microphones until it becomes normal behavior in your setting.

How might getting to know people with disabilities lead to inviting them to use their gifts in worship? 

People with disabilities are as diverse as everybody else, and so are the ways they use their gifts in church. Anecdotally, I’ve heard of a woman with intellectual disabilities who serves on a worship team. She has a gift for being immersed in and leading others in worship. Others with intellectual disabilities have the gift of praying for people.

Surveying the congregation may also reveal untapped gifts of people with non-apparent disabilities. One church survey asked, “Is there a gift you’d like to share in church or have stopped sharing? What barrier prevents you from using your gift?” An older man responded, “I used to love leading in prayer, but I can’t make it up the steps anymore.” So, the church moved a microphone down to floor level, where it was easy for him stand to lead in prayer. A better long-term solution would be to build a ramp, but this was an example of a simple solution that cost nothing to implement.


Check out Thrive’s disability access resources, such as how to plan a Disability Awareness Sunday. Listen to this podcast episode with theologian Benjamin T. Conner: “Friendship and Hospitality that Embraces Youth with Developmental Disabilities.” Gather a group to read and discuss books and articles about disability within faith communities.