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Universal Design, Vertical Habits and Inclusive Worship

Universal design and Vertical Habits help create church worship that touches all our senses and is accessible to all worshipers.

Imagine yourself in a church where every sermon is a series of visual images not connected to words. The worshipers around you seem attuned to this way of communicating with God; it’s normal for them. So, if God hasn’t wired you to learn well visually, does that make you disabled?

Barbara J. Newman, an expert in disability ministry and advocacy, uses the above example to shift views of “normal” Christian worship. She’s found that many churches don’t even realize they’re set up for people “packaged in a body that learns by ear and can process language well by speaking and writing.”

Rather than tweaking the standard model of church worship, education and life, Newman suggests exploring how to create an accessible conversation with God for all worshipers. Accessible worship is, at root, flexible enough so that each person can receive and respond as God has gifted them.

Newman’s new book, Accessible Gospel, Inclusive Worship, uses the Vertical Habits concept to illustrate a universal design that recognizes and uses each person’s gifts in ministry. She wrote the book with Betty Grit, who previously managed Calvin Institute of Christian Worship’s worship renewal grants program.

Universal design for equal opportunity 

You’ve already experienced the benefits of universal design if you’ve ever pushed a baby stroller or luggage cart up a ramp. Architects and urban planners work within a universal design framework to create curb cuts, ramps and automatic doors so all people have equal opportunity to get around.

Educators use Universal Design for Learning (UDL) principles to develop curricular materials that give everyone equal opportunities to learn. UDL is a way of thinking that helps you look at the what, how and why of learning before you create a system that’s weighted in favor of people with a specific ability set.

Vertical Habits is a simple curriculum for worship created by the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. It pairs eight common worship service elements (the what) with relational words (the how), so worshipers grow in their relationship with God (the why). Accessible Gospel, Inclusive Worship mines Vertical Habits experiences at many churches and schools for ideas that fit children and youth with intellectual and development disabilities.

Many Christians think of worship as a conversation with God. The phrase “love you” describes the Vertical Habit of praise. “If we use only spoken words set to music for the part of the conversation that says ‘I love you, God,’ then we have left someone out who has no spoken words,” Newman writes.

UDL offers multiple means of action and expression for the how of learning. That’s why the book’s idea bank for “love you” includes saying it with sign language and teaching the whole congregation to sign during times of prayer, praise or commitment. Some churches have banners, flags and praise rings that people wave during songs. Newman suggests getting permission to drape a wheelchair with praise ribbons and letting someone push it around. She advises offering construction earmuffs or headphones to people with auditory sensitivity who find praise songs painfully loud.

Puzzle piece perspective

Universal design is a powerful way for churches to signal God’s mission. “The Christian church should strive to be the model of universal design…. the example that people use whenever they discuss such principles. I believe it is God's intention that the church be a place of openness and acceptance,” Jeff McNair wrote on his Disabled Christianity blog. McNair directs the master’s in disabilities studies program at California Baptist University in Riverside, California.

The first step toward universal design in your church is to begin talking about disability in every area of church life. When Barb Newman consults with churches, she uses what Christian Learning Center Network calls “the puzzle piece perspective.”

The puzzle piece perspective sees every person as part of a pink and green jigsaw puzzle that pictures God’s kingdom. Each of us is a puzzle piece with green parts for things we are good at or enjoy, and pink parts for weaknesses or things we struggle with. “No one is all pink or all green. Each person is knit together by God to fill an important spot in the complete picture,” Newman says.

It’s easy to see how a corner or edge piece fits into a puzzle. Spotting how center pieces complete the picture requires getting to know individuals and their families. Newman looks first at their gifts, joys and abilities. She asks how they take in and express information and whether they have any movement challenges or sensory sensitivities.

The phrase “I’m listening” describes the Vertical Habit of illumination. To listen well to God, some worshipers need an interpreter, hearing loop system, larger print, books in Braille or verbal presentation with PowerPoint. Everyone benefits when you distill your message to one big idea. You could use visuals, keep highlighting the big idea, ask people to recite it with you or ask them to sign “I’m listening.”

The puzzle piece perspective sometimes reverses how we in Christ’s body see each other. The book includes the story of Brendan, a young adult whose pink is spoken words and certain academic areas. His green is rhythm and music. Fellow worshipers who jab each other’s musical preferences—maybe Charles Wesley’s hymn “Oh, for a Thousand Tongues” or Matt Redman’s contemporary “Ten Thousand Reasons”—have noticed that Brendan moves joyfully to any music. His maturity in accepting diversity may make us question who is weak or strong as a Christian.

Ministry to and with

When you start to see each person as designed by God for a specific purpose, then you start thinking of ministry with (not just to) people with disabilities. This desire pushes us to prayer, especially when it’s not obvious whether God has wired a person to connect with God’s Spirit “by ear, eye or touch,” Newman writes.

The book mentions Yolanda, who has a gift for praise and worship, and her pastor, who “simply said, ‘I’ve asked Yolanda to wave a purple streamer as we sing today. I am beginning a sermon series on Jesus as our King, and I want us to think about that as we worship.’”

Vertical Habits can be expressed as words, symbols and actions. The latter helps sink into our muscle memory that, in worship, we are being and revealing the body of Christ together. The phrase “I’m sorry” describes the Vertical Habit of confession. For centuries, Christians have embodied this habit by bowing or kneeling. The book’s confession ideas include ways to say “I’m sorry” without words. People drape lengths of chain around their neck and then go to another spot, maybe an area with a cross, to have someone remove the chain and offer a clean scarf in its place.

“Allow opportunity for your whole congregation to say ‘I’m sorry’ to God for not supporting an inclusive environment for those with unique gifts and needs. Preach a sermon, ask for testimonies, invite a special speaker, inform the congregation of God’s expectation….and then allow God’s Spirit to move,” Newman writes.

It’s also important to give voice to pain and questions about living with disability. The one-word question “why?” describes the Vertical Habit of lament. The book suggests asking an individual or family to tell their story. Newman says that Psalm 13 is a good model for sharing fear and hurt in worship, because it ends with, “But I trust in your unfailing love, my heart rejoices in your salvation. I will sing the Lord’s praise, for he has been good to me.

As people get to know each other, they begin to see each other as fellow friends of Christ. When explaining the Vertical Habit of petition (“help!”), Newman recalls Jonathan, a drama team member with Down syndrome. She’d been his teacher and drama director for 25 years. One Sunday, Jonathan noticed how exhausted she was. He took her hand and said in his halting way, “Mrs. B, you look sad today. I will pray for you.”

Newman writes, “God used his words and presence in my life to heal my hectic and broken insides. On that day, Jonathan was the friend, and I was the one on the mat desperately in need of the presence of Jesus Christ.”



Read Accessible Gospel, Inclusive Worship by Barbara J. Newman with contributions by Betty Grit.  Learn why Barbara J. Newman received the 2015 Henri J. Nouwen Award. She is an educator, author, speaker, consultant and Calvin Institute of Christian Worship program affiliate.

Check out these resources on Vertical Habits and disability within faith communities. Give yourself a crash course on universal design for worship spaces and Universal Design for Learning. CLC (Christian Learning Center) Network offers services and resources for churches.

Nearly one in five U.S. adults has a physical or mental disability that affects one or more major life activity, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Read about worship in a Deaf church.

Jeff McNair suggests that rather than saying “We are all disabled” as a way to connect, it’s better to start with “We are all complete in Christ.” Though it’s true we’re all disabled by sin, we don’t all live with the same life limitations as, say, a person with dementia or missing limbs.

DisArt Festival created a checklist for making exhibitions more accessible. You can adapt it for church life.


Feel free to print and distribute these stories at your staff, education, worship arts or justice meeting. These questions will help people start talking about ability and disability in all areas off church life:

  • Have you attended worship or a church event in a language other than your own? What helped—or would have helped—you feel part of and understand what was happening?
  • What’s the difference between saying any of these in worship: “Please stand,” “You may stand” or “Please rise in body or spirit”?
  • What emotional or theological resistance do you feel to using Vertical Habits in your church context?