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Making Worship Accessible for Persons with Disabilities

An article covering several important aspects of making your worship space accessible to those with physical disabilities.

From newsletter, Allen J. Moore Multicultural Resource and Research Center, Claremont School of Theology, Claremont, CA. Used by permission of Kathy Black.

As we consider making our worship welcoming to persons from different generations and different cultures, we should not forget to give attention to making our worship hospitable to persons with various disabilities. There are so many things that a congregation can do to make their worship accessible. However, persons with different disabilities have different needs so we will discuss worship access issues in four different categories: Communication Access, Physical Access, Companion Access, and Language Access.

Communication Access

While Communication Access is the broad category, it really includes two groups of persons who have opposite needs: those who are deaf or hard of hearing and need visual communication and those who are blind or visually impaired and need oral communication.

For Persons who are Deaf:

  • Provide a sign language interpreter. Since there are several sign systems in existence, it is important to know which sign language (American Sign Language or one of the manual codes of English) is used by the deaf persons present in the congregation (and in the community at large) before interviewing interpreters.
  • Provide an oral interpreter for those who speech read (lipread). The distance between parishioner and worship leader as well as the elevated level of most chancel areas make speech reading difficult in worship. Oral interpreters sit opposite the person dependent upon speech reading and lip-synch every word that is said or sung.

For Persons who are Hard of Hearing:

  • Provide some sort of large room Assistive Listening System. These come in three basic forms based on the technology used: an infra-red system (best quality, most expensive), an FM system (can get interference on the system if you are near a TV, radio, police or fire station), or an audio-loop system (the cheapest to use but there may be empty pockets in the room where persons who need the system should not sit). While the Infra-red and FM systems require persons to wear some sort of "hearing device," the audio-loop system can be operated off of the "telephone switch" on a person's hearing aid. The Infra-red and FM systems can be adapted to a hearing aid by connecting a loop to one of the other systems.
  • Provide as much printed information as possible. If the pastor preaches from a sermon manuscript or outline, make it available either before or after worship for those who are hard of hearing. Print words to choir anthems in the bulletin or have a separate handout for those who can't always understand the words.

For Persons who are Blind:

  • Provide a visual interpreter. Initially, and as the environment changes, it is helpful to have a visual interpreter who will verbally describe the worship space - banners, symbols, architecture, etc. If there is liturgical dance or other visual movement, the visual interpreter can describe the dynamics and tone created by the dance.
  • Provide some repetition from week to week in the liturgy. Since the words to hymns are sung by memory and prayers are said by memory, when there is some repetition to the liturgy, persons who are blind can participate more fully.

For Persons who are Visually Impaired:

  • Provide Large Print bulletins and Large Print hymnals or song sheets.

Physical Access

Physical access is important to make persons who use wheelchairs and walkers feel as if they are an integral part of the congregation. Adaptations to the worship space can also make the environment safer for all congregants.

  • Provide access to the choir "loft" and chancel area. Persons who use walkers and wheelchairs should not be excluded from choir participation or worship leadership.
  • Remove about 4 feet off the end of a few pews. Persons who use wheelchairs should be able to sit next to family or friends without sticking out in the aisle. Persons who use a walker should be able to leave their walker next to them in case they need to leave in the middle of the service. They should also be able to choose where they want to sit - up front, in the back, or in the middle.

Companion Access

Companion access provides companions to those with developmental disabilities and some mental illnesses.

  • Provide a companion who will sit with and guide someone who needs a little extra assistance. Some will just need a friend who will sit with them and help guide them through the bulletin, hymnal, or prayer book. Others may need someone to help keep them focused on the task at hand.
  • Provide a companion to give respite to the primary care giver.

Language Access

The language used in worship can make persons with disabilities feel welcome and included as part of the family of God or it can make them feel as if their very existence is a sin; that they are somehow cursed by God. The language of prayers, hymns/songs, and the sermon all contribute to persons with disabilities feeling accepted or oppressed.

  • Choose prayers and hymns/songs where the language does not equate sensory language (deaf, blind, paralyzed) with sin, a willful disobedience to God.
  • Know what one's theology is concerning disability and whether God causes it or not. Choose language carefully so those who live with a disability are not blamed (because they are cursed by God because of some sin or they are lacking in faith) causing more suffering and oppression.