U ntil a coronavirus vaccine is widely available, resuming church as usual is not a realistic option for many people, especially a large percentage of people with disabilities. Can the church use the opportunity before us to create communities of true access and welcome for ALL people, not just those who are able-bodied? How can we approach this moment with enough Spirit-filled imagination to structure worship and other church gatherings for ALL OF US, not just those who are the most fit and healthy?
Does everybody belong?
“Do we believe God has called and equipped people with and without disabilities with gifts for ministry that are essential to our community?” ask Bethany McKinney Fox and Rosalba Rios. “If we do, then that’s our motivation to create accessible communities. It’s not for them, it’s for all of us, because we are incomplete as a church without the gifts and presence of our disabled kindred.”
The presence and perspectives of people with disabilities enhance and improve the diversity of our congregations, communities, and world. Not to consider how in-person gatherings will impact them violates the spirit of Philippians 2:4: “Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.”
One of the painful dimensions of ableism—the prejudice or bias that devalues, discriminates, and oppresses people with disabilities—is failing to include people with disabilities in key decisions, especially those decisions that will directly impact them. How ironic it will be if the past few months of refreshing, barrier-free access, made possible by virtual gatherings, are followed not just by the same old barriers, but by new and improved ones.
Ways to ensure everybody belongs when returning to in-person services
Here are five basic approaches for overcoming ableist tendencies in our planning to return to in-person gatherings:
- Engage those who are most at-risk of becoming further isolated. Ask people with disabilities what their concerns are about returning and collaborate with them in providing possible solutions.
- If your church has offered worship and other gatherings in a virtual format such as Zoom, Skype, or Facebook Live—perhaps engaging people who had not been physically present prior to the COVID-19 pandemic—ask what they have appreciated about the virtual format. What concerns do they have about returning? At the very least, find out if you can provide a reasonable accommodation by continuing to offer virtual options even when in-person gatherings resume.
- In making room for people who are vulnerable, give priority to those who have been among the most isolated during the pandemic as you plan for in-person gatherings. Who has not had easy access to computer technology and therefore has been unable to participate as fully in virtual gatherings? Who lives alone and has not lived with a companion or family member during this period of forced isolation? What would it look like for your church to make room for them to be among the first to gather in person?
- A basic principle of universal design is that highly accessible environments and structures help everyone, not just the people who benefit from them most. If plans are made first to welcome back the most vulnerable and isolated, and those needs remain a priority in subsequent plans, you’ll be creating an environment that’s accessible for everyone, not just the most able-bodied.
- To learn how a small church in Connecticut is taking such an approach, listen to author Amy Julia Becker describe it in less than three minutes in this webinar (start about six minutes into the recording).
- If your church has been connecting with people it hadn’t reached before the pandemic, what made the virtual gatherings more accessible? If the desire is to continue to reach them, what approach would accommodate them as you start meeting in person? What can you do to continue connecting with them a year from now?
- Perhaps a brief survey could be conducted to learn more about what their experience has been, what their desires are, and what concerns they have for in-person gatherings. This blog post by Barbara Newman provides a link to one church’s survey.
In many ways, people with disabilities have found that living through the isolation and navigating the stay-home phase of the pandemic actually has made life easier because the usual barriers to participating in person* have been removed. Relying heavily on technology for worship and small group gatherings has been an accommodation that’s leveled the playing field for a number of people with disabilities. It has allowed access to gatherings in spaces that had been inaccessible before.
As helpful as the virtual spaces have been, many with disabilities are frustrated that it took a global crisis to figure out these more inclusive and accessible options for full participation—and that churches, employers, educational institutions, and service providers did so in a matter of days or weeks. Yet, for decades, people with disabilities have been asking for such accommodations to living in a world that has not been designed with them in mind.
“When the able-bodied population needed these accommodations, it happened right away,” says Kate McWilliams, a disability rights advocate who has complex regional pain syndrome. “You wonder, ‘Why is it so easy to do for the able-bodied population, but not for disabled people?’”
Working toward everybody serving
Frustrations and pointed questions aside, all of us are learning things that will serve us for months and years to come. But what has the church specifically learned about its barriers, and where do we go from here in our yearning to return to in-person gatherings? How are your church’s plans taking these discoveries into account in the near and long term? Everyone has an opinion, but has your church specifically sought out the perspectives of people with disabilities, who stand to be among those most impacted by a return to in-person gatherings?
Planning for the end of the lockdown that has immobilized us during this pandemic also offers an opportunity to plan for an end to the barriers of inaccessibility. Although it should not take a crisis to include people with disabilities, our planning and imagination in the months to come offer the hope that a new day of access is dawning for accessible, welcoming churches where everybody belongs and everybody serves.
*The COVID-19 pandemic has not made life more accessible for all people with disabilities. Those with hearing loss who rely significantly on speech reading and other facial cues find people wearing face masks are far more difficult to understand. People who are blind or have low vision who rely heavily on touch and physical contact have lost a primary means of experiencing their environment; guide dogs have not been trained to operate in a world suddenly practicing social distancing. For those who rely heavily on social connections for their well-being, suddenly living in forced isolation has created a host of challenges and a heightened incidence of mental health challenges. You can read more about mental health challenges here, here, and here.
Terry A. DeYoung served as coordinator for disability concerns for the Reformed Church in America for 13 years before his retirement in 2023. His wife, Cindi Veldheer DeYoung, is a former hospital chaplain who lives with significant hearing loss. They live in Holland, Michigan, with their lively Brittany Spaniel, Dexter. Among other things, they enjoy traveling, boating, baseball, craft beer, and all things Chicago.