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Lindsay Wieland Capel on Recognizing and Overcoming Ableism in Churches

Many congregations don’t realize that the way they arrange their space, talk in worship, or define giftedness and leadership speaks volumes to people with different bodies and minds. The message is: “We don’t see you as a welcomed and valued member of Christ’s body.”

Lindsay Wieland Capel helps churches become more accessible and welcoming to people with disabilities through her role as a disability advocate 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 systemic changes needed to overcome ableism in churches.

How do you define ableism?

Ableism is valuing people without disabilities over people with disabilities. We hear it when worship leaders ask everyone to stand and sing. It’s better to ask people to rise in body or spirit. Not everyone can stand. Nor can everyone sing, though the reasons may vary. Some people don’t speak because of cognitive disabilities, cerebral palsy, effects of strokes, or ALS. People with low literacy might not be able to read printed lyrics. Or maybe someone has a different mother tongue and doesn’t understand your church’s main language very well.

Some churches invite children forward to choose ribbons or rhythm instruments to use during singing. But another way would be to say that some of us worship through singing, others by clapping, dancing, waving ribbons, using instruments, or dancing. Then you can invite everyone to engage with the worship music as they like.

What paradigm shifts can help churches start to recognize and overcome ableism?

Our ministry, Thrive, recently had a training on hospitality, and Ben Conner from Western Theological Seminary said something that has really stuck with me. He said, “How does ableism impact hospitality? It gets in the way of our practice of hospitality because people with disabilities are typically envisioned only as guests and not as hosts.” The gifts of people with disabilities are so often overlooked and unappreciated. They are usually seen as receivers of the gifts of others, but each person has been given gifts that the body of Christ needs! 

There’s a growing movement called the social model of disability that shifts the focus of disability from an individual’s body to environmental barriers, including physical barriers, communication barriers, and attitudinal barriers. The key here is that we want to build environments that anticipate the diversity of bodies and minds that are reflected in humanity. This is the concept of universal design. It turns out that things built for people with disabilities usually turn out to be things everyone appreciates. Most of us appreciate using a ramp or curb cut for luggage, a stroller, or a heavy load. Most of us have used closed captioning on a TV at a noisy restaurant or airport.

What physical elements in church communicate ableism? 

So many activities of worship and congregational life are meant to be done at standing height. More people can participate and thrive if we provide things at both sitting and standing height. You may have noticed at medical check-in areas that there’s always at least one desk that is lower, which works well for wheelchair users and people with dwarfism. They do this because of requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act. But churches are exempt from those requirements. If your church’s coffee serving spot or nursery check-in requires people to stand, then you’re counting out people who have the gift of hospitality but need things at sitting height. If your sanctuary has no ramp to the front of the worship leading space, that’s a barrier to people with mobility disabilities who may have gifts of leading prayer, music, preaching, or reading scripture. 

Try to think of every activity in the church from a user’s perspective. I noticed in an airport bathroom stall that there were hooks at standing and sitting height. That’s so simple. I noticed in our church bathrooms that my kids can’t reach the paper towel dispensers. I talked to folks at church, and they lowered them so now everyone can reach the paper towels. When someone who needs it sees that you’ve included counters, hooks, and coat racks at different levels, they feel thought of before they even entered the church. These options communicate that you value people with disabilities.

What other physical elements communicate welcome and hospitality rather than ableism?

Having different kinds of chairs and cut-out spaces for wheelchairs and walkers, worship bulletins in 14-point font or higher, using closed captions for videos and online worship, always using microphones and rovers with cordless mics at meetings and adult education, having gluten-free bread at communion—these are all options that show that you welcome and make room for differences.

It’s becoming more common for churches to add a glassed-in room to the sanctuary or worship space that has sound piped in and adjustable lighting. It’s most often used for people with autism or sensory processing disorders. It’s also useful for people with social anxiety, families with young children, or people who simply want another option of where to sit.

What’s the relationship between ableism and racism?

Ableism and racism both have to do with the ranking of bodies. People with certain types of bodies are valued and given more power and their voices are elevated. The church is not immune to this sin. I suspect there are a lot of parallels with some of the experiences in church of people with disabilities and people of color. And, of course, some people of color have disabilities. Our theology says we’re all made in the image of God and that each part is essential to the body, but that doesn’t stop churches from valuing some people more than others. There can be deep hurt from being treated as if you, your gifts, or your ideas are valued less than those of other people, and it’s exhausting to navigate spaces that weren’t made with you in mind. 

Racism and ableism have been so ingrained in us. I want to be anti-racist and anti-ableist, but it doesn’t just happen because I want it to. I have to do the work. I have to listen to the experiences of others, elevate others’ voices, and learn what helps and what hurts. I’m not going to get it right all the time. It’s humbling. I have a lot to learn. 

Sometimes starting conversations can be scary.

I think most of us recognize how important language is when we’re talking about people who are regularly discriminated against. It’s good that we want to “get it right” and be respectful. But I have to be careful that my fear of saying the wrong thing about race doesn’t keep me from learning more or having the conversation in the first place. I hear that this is a fear many also have about talking with people with disabilities or about ableism. It’s so important that we engage with humility and curiosity even if we’re not always sure how to say things.

What first steps can a church take to systematically recognize and overcome ableism? 

I suggest forming a committee or official team with some built-in connection to the church council, board, or session. This team will intentionally create a sense of forward movement and intentionality by doing two things: exploring universal design elements that other congregations have found helpful and getting to know who’s in your church. Include people with disabilities on this team. As a group you can read books, watch trainings, and audit your building, parking lot, and attitudes.

Implementing universal design can feel overwhelming. But there are many easy changes you can make for free or almost free. Build other solutions into a three- to five-year plan. Our church had a bathroom that met ADA standards, but the only way you could reach it was through a door at the front of the sanctuary, which meant everyone could see where you were heading. Now we have an accessible bathroom near our coffee area in the narthex, but it took noticing the need, prioritizing it in the budget, and some serious creativity about where it would go. 

Can you say more about asking congregants about barriers, whether their disabilities are apparent or not?

Besides surveying your church, your team members could notice who’s not at or no longer at worship or other activities. Which children don’t go up for children’s worship or to Sunday school? Who no longer attends Bible study? Is there someone who never participates in communion? You can interview people one-on-one or in small groups. Be alert for changes that come with aging.

Maybe someone who shakes a lot has challenges holding a tiny cup of communion juice. They might benefit from having their own mug or a straw in a cup. Perhaps a faithful Bible study or small group member dropped out because they can no longer drive. You could arrange rides for them or form a group that meets online. 


Check out Thrive’s disability access resources, such as free online training to become a disabilities advocate. Click on the “Accessibility bar to use or adapt this church accessibility audit and church accessibility survey. Find resources to physically audit your church property and create a disabilities survey. Explore documents and resources from Disability Ministries of the United Methodist Church.