I have a confession to make: until recently, I thought I had a pretty good handle on issues of accessibility at church.
Mentally totting up what was needed and important, I sat down with the accessibility guidelines created for the Sydney Diocese by disability advocate and former principal of Mary Andrews College, Dr Louise Gosbell, and started to read. And discovered that I was woefully under-informed.
Perhaps you also feel that you and your church are doing disability access well. Or perhaps it’s something you haven’t thought much about. Either way, you may well find there is a whole raft of issues and disability needs that have never occurred to you.
One church at a time
The rector of Minchinbury, the Rev Mike Smith, says his parish is “very much committed to ensuring our property and our programs – our entire ministry footprint – is accessible and inclusive to everybody, but we’re still only at the early stage of implementing changes.
“I remember that the committee we established took [parish council] through our bathrooms with a wheelchair, and we had to sit in the wheelchair and try to make our way through and use the facilities. It’s not until you are actually in, for want of a better phrase, the shoes of a person with mobility constraints that you understand the difficulties of accessing even basic facilities. It was a real eye-opener.”
The committee Mr Smith mentions is recommended in Dr Gosbell’s book, Everyone Welcome – Accessible Church for All, which takes a church step-by-step through processes to identify the needs of members and any shortfalls in programs, ministry or physical property that might hinder them – or others in the community – from being comfortable at church.
Says Dr Gosbell: “What I often hear is that people want to be more inclusive but don’t know how to do that, or where to start. So, I was keen to help people really think about those essential steps that churches could take towards having better inclusive practices.
“There has been a very positive response, which is exciting. People are glad, firstly, to have a resource that they can go to, to have questions answered. Even something like, ‘What is large print – how big is it?’ Or, ‘Where do I get an Auslan interpreter from?’
“I’ve been involved in disability in an academic way, and involved in practical ministry with people with disability, for 20 years, so I was able to tap into the significant network I have developed to be able to reach out to people and have discussions.
“People were really keen to contribute because they saw the merit in being able to have their own stories and experiences contribute towards something to potentially make it easier for the next family or person as they come into the church community.”
The guidelines begin with the seven forms of impairment and medical condition covered by the Disability Discrimination Act, as well as a theology of disability-inclusive ministry (see next page). What then follows is an in-depth consideration of what a disability-inclusive church looks like and how our attitudes, communication and physical spaces can welcome people in, or make them feel less valued.
For example, are our programs set up to cater for those on the autism spectrum, or with mental health struggles? Can people with hearing impairments follow the service? Are less mobile congregation members able to stand, sit and move around comfortably? Can everyone safely access all parts of the site? Does your church’s website detail its accessibility for anyone planning to attend?
Dr Gosbell acknowledges there is a lot to consider, which is why she recommends each church create an inclusion committee. This way all the work doesn’t fall on the senior minister or leadership team, and people with lived experience of disability can take part in sharing knowledge, facilitate a parish survey to ask for feedback and insights, and make recommendations to parish council.
Educate people about disability
Kevin Spencer, who has been in a wheelchair since a motorbike accident at the age of 19, is a member of Minchinbury’s inclusion committee. He says making plans in response to their findings “gives you targets to achieve. Any change takes time and is hard to accomplish, and that might be frustrating for people who require the facilities, but then it’s more of a groundswell of people moving along together.”
His wife Elizabeth, who heads the committee, adds simply: “It’s a matter of educating people – especially the decision-makers. It really required a humility on the part of those who make the decisions to say,
‘I haven’t experienced any form of disability – or this form of disability – but I will seek the input of those who have, and who are, and act accordingly’.”
Minchinbury’s parish survey provided a number of helpful insights for Mike Smith, including the observation that, while the church was “reasonably accessible and inclusive”, its response to issues in the past has not been proactive.
“It’s good to acknowledge those things,” he says. “Yes, we have people with disability in our church, but that doesn’t mean that we are as inclusive and accessible as we want to be. They feel welcome, but you’re not doing the best you can do.”
Some changes – such as more accessible toilets – will take time because of the cost. However, the parish has made a number of alterations since late last year, including creating accessible parking spaces of a more appropriate size, with loading zones; replacing round door handles with levers, which are easier to use; and sourcing adjustable-height seats for less mobile parishioners.
The children’s and youth leaders have been trained in Key Word Sign, which uses basic Auslan to help communicate better with kids who are non-verbal. Changes have also been made, where needed, to the language used up the front – with, for example, the encouragement to stand for a song altered to “please stand if you’re able to”.
Is it worth it?
Says Dr Gosbell: “Some might say, ‘I reckon that sounds like a lot of work... and why would I do that for a small minority of the church community?’ But 17 per cent of the Australian population lives with some kind of disability... so, whether you realise it or not, you have people with disability in your churches, and you may never have realised the barriers that exist to those people being part of the church community.
“The statistics are that the average person in the Western world will spend at least eight years of their life with a disability, so that means disability is an inevitable part of our human experience. For the most part, we are not proactive in thinking about opportunities [but] changes that we make to accommodate people with disability are beneficial for everyone.
“Yes, putting in a ramp is expensive, but it isn’t just for wheelchair users! It could be used by someone with reduced mobility – someone with crutches, mums with prams, or when you have to unload all the books for the church bookshop. When we make the print larger on our handouts or power points, or install clearer signage around the church, that’s not just for people who are vision impaired. It’s helpful for newcomers or English-as-a-second-language participants.
“Changes you make are not just for that 17 per cent... When we think intentionally about disability, we actually will benefit the broader church community as well.”
It is also a real encouragement for those seeking to serve and honour the Lord no matter what their body’s limitations. Kevin Spencer’s disability is gradually having a greater impact on what he can take part in at church, as he can no longer go out at night. But that hasn’t stopped him leading a Bible study, even if he occasionally has to host it in his bedroom while he lies in bed.
“I tend not to get too frustrated,” he says. “I just say, ‘That chapter’s closed – what’s God got for me now?’” He grins. “And whatever happens, it’s all part of God’s plan. Who am I to argue against God?”
All people need salvation
The message of salvation is not limited to those who are able-bodied, but to all people, irrespective of physical or intellectual abilities or disabilities. However, the Lausanne Congress on World Evangelisation estimates that only five-to-10 per cent of the global population of people with disability are reached with the gospel... Part of our task in response to the Great Commission (Matt 28:19-20) should be ensuring the gospel is also brought to people living with disability and their families.
All people have the capacity for relationship with God
God created human beings to live in relationship with him, with others, and with the created world. While sin fractured and distorted our capacity for all of these relationships, God’s act of love through Jesus restores them... Faith is not reliant on a person’s cognisance. Rather, it is wholly reliant on the abundant grace and mercy of God poured out in Jesus. Therefore, it is the role of the church to continue to share the gospel with all people, including people with disability and their families, and to help break down the barriers that currently prevent this good news from reaching this “unreached” people group.
All believers are members of the body of Christ and have a role to play
While the world we live in may measure value and worth by outward appearance or on the basis of things that we do and achieve in this world, it is not so with the body of Christ. In this body all believers have a role to play and can contribute their gifts in service to God to bring about his purposes. These gifts are distributed by the Spirit for the “common good” of the body (1 Cor 12:4,7). Irrespective of a person’s physical or intellectual abilities or disabilities, those who are in Christ are gifted by the Spirit and have something valuable to contribute to the community of faith.
(Taken from Everyone Welcome – Accessible Church for All)