Is everyone welcome at your church? I know you’re thinking, “That’s crazy. Of course everyone is welcome.” Don’t be defensive my friend. I mean, really, really welcome. Like not just in theory, but in practice. If we want to be welcoming we have to be on the offense. We need to be proactive but we need to go deeper. Sure everyone may be welcome to come through that door, but what happens next? Entry is just the first step. I’ve been working in the field of disabilities for over 10 years, and I’ve also been a youth pastor. I can tell you that people with disabilities don’t want to be treated like they’re special, in fact some people even hate that word. They just want to be treated like everyone else. So the best approach is working in advance to ensure that guests at your church of all abilities feel welcome. So aside from guests, what about church members with disabilities? One of the most prominent truths that is pointed out to me by my friends with disabilities is this: They don’t want to just feel welcome to attend the service, they want to be able to participate in the service. Worshipers of different abilities want to be able to lead or teach, or sing and experience God in as many ways as their non-disabled believing friends. Below are 17 Tips to make your church more accessible and welcoming.
Resolve to take your disability access to the next level in your church. Church members take their cues from their leadership. If the leadership makes accessing worship and all the benefits of your church seriously, then the congregation will follow suit. (Well, most of them, but we can pray right?). Also, some churches may need to adapt or shift their philosophy from simply “providing services for respite” for families touched by disability (which certainly may be important) to finding more ways for them to worship together as a family. Sure, respite ministries for families who have a severely disabled family member unable to attend church, are helpful, but the heavier focus should be on inclusive worship, and giving everyone an opportunity to lead, participate and access the services at your church.
Remember this! Disabled access is more than just accessible parking. After all, it’s getting everyone into the church and then helping them find ways to engage with God that’s most important– but of course improving your grounds and parking access is a great way to start. Make sure you have plenty of “Accessible Parking.” The term “accessible parking” is becoming more common and is the most acceptable term–(“disabled parking” is ok). Ensure that the designated accessible parking is located closest to the most accessible entrance and that it’s clearly marked. As an aside, be sure to offer accessible parking for individuals in cars, and for people in vans or larger vehicles as well.
Look for a sign. Signage and directions are important and helpful for everyone. You really can’t overdo the signage as long as it’s clearly labeled. It’s also not much more expensive to add braille to your church doors inside the building as well for your blind or visually impaired guests—especially on the bathrooms.
Let your people “Go”. Speaking of restrooms. Individuals with a variety of disabilities need the appropriate “sturdy” bars and handles and adequate space. Many churches still don’t have adequate bathroom stalls for disabled members and guests. Accessible bathroom stalls are non-negotiables really. Guests won’t be back if a prospective church doesn’t offer a private, adequate space to take care of basic needs. Besides, everyone can benefit from more spacious bathrooms, better signage, grab bars, and appropriately sized sinks, right? The most intuitive tools are best: example, touch-less faucets that don’t require twisting, towel dispensers or dryers that don’t require pushing or pulling.
Labels! Ok so it’s one goal of the church to avoid labels maybe, but not where food is concerned. It’s really best practice for everyone to label foods and snacks that are made available especially at official church functions like Homecoming Dinners, Christmas, and Thanksgiving feasts. When there are ten bowls of potato salad on the table, it’s always good to know which bowl of potato salad is your favorite, like the one made by your Aunt Ethel, right? Some people have strong food sensitivities and listing a name for the dish, the ingredients, and who prepared it is just another way to make the event, and your church all the more welcoming for everyone. It may be awkward at first, but it’ll soon become a helpful tradition. Important note: visitors with strong or life-threatening allergies beyond simpler sensitivities may not choose to attend, but just in case they do, at least show that you care by warning about nuts, eggs, and other serious allergens.
Stop cramming! Make the written word accessible. I’m not talking about THE WORD, (that should always be easily accessible), I’m talking about church bulletins, hand-outs, and anything you put into the hands of people in your church. Big tip—white space is always helpful. We’ve all seen church bulletins that are crammed so full and the words are so small they’re almost illegible. It’s frustrating for everyone, especially anyone over 40 (Yes, I went there). White space is not only pleasing, it helps readers visually organize information, and it helps those with visual disabilities as well. No font should ever be smaller than 12 pt. in a church-wide bulletin, and yes that means, you may have to use more paper. Remember, it’s about being welcoming and accessible. When it comes to font styles and themes, some fonts are better choices than others for people with visual disabilities, and for learning disabilities. Avoid using curly, squiggly fonts that can be confusing. Times New Roman, Arial, and Verdana are all good choices, but there are many out there. Also, it’s super helpful to spread the information around. If you offer information in written form on paper, offer it on the web, and project it onto screens. Why not go wild, and add an audio file on your church webpage, too!
Project your welcome too! Much of what was said in number 5 applies to what you project on your worship screens as well. Add lots of space between what’s written, and remember certain fonts are better than others, while keeping your font-size readable. It’s easy enough to add more slides. When it comes to your screen projection, pay attention to color contrasts also. Of course, if you have announcements on your slides, try your best to have those same announcements represented in other places as well. Above all make it a point to encourage speakers and worship leaders to describe what’s on the slide as they’re presenting at any opportunity.
Caption this! Add captions and transcripts when and where you can. This one can be controversial because of the costs involved. Many churches are on a limited budget and most churches don’t have captionists or transcription experts on staff (or even in the congregation for that matter). Consider this: when something is spoken, whether on a video or in your church service, there’s probably someone present who can’t hear it. Captioning and transcription helps everyone, not just people with disabilities access and appreciate the information. There are some very quick and easy captioning services. Rev.com is a great and quick resource. While sites like Rev may be considered reasonable in the everyday captioning world, captioning is still not cheap (think a dollar a minute on a minimum). Online services can take your sermon or your church video (with a link or uploaded file) and have it captioned or transcribed literally in a few hours. Captions take your videos and services to another level and everyone can benefit.
Untangle your web. Church websites are becoming increasingly valuable, helpful resources, but many church websites are still not accessible to people with a variety of disabilities– especially those with visual impairments or blindness. Ask your church web designer to add an accessibility checker widget to your website. Some enhancements are really quite simple. If you add photos to your website, go in and add a photo description and “alt-tags”. If you upload a PDF, be sure it’s an accessible PDF. Otherwise, a blind person using a screen reader to surf your website will only see a random “image” message rather than the words you intend for them to read. Also, fancy flashing photos and moving web pages are often inaccessible. Some such effects can even cause seizures. If you have videos or audio on your website it’s always best to caption them. Ask yourself this: Is your website meant to be entertaining or informational? Don’t sacrifice the message for fancy features. You can have a classy, clean or fun site without sacrificing accessibility. It’s about making everyone feel more welcome and letting them know you took the time to make a difference just for them.
Amplify the Word. Many churches are providing headsets, FM systems, or small pocket amplifiers for checkout during service hours. Even a small church can have a couple of those on hand. They don’t have to be expensive. In fact, many have become very reasonable. It may be as simple as the speaker wearing a transmitter around their neck or pinning it to their lapel which amplifies the message to the person wearing the receiving device. Your church should also have noise reducing disposable earplugs available, and maybe even a set of noise canceling head phones (more pricey) for people who have difficulty with loud noises or loud music.
Adapt Your Curriculum, Programs, and Resources. If you want to be welcoming, look into a variety of adaptable materials. Many are even reasonably low-cost. For example, people of different abilities and ages may have trouble with small pens, pencils or crayons. It’s best to have a variety of sizes available in the pews and in the classroom. Also, your recreation department may want to have adaptable recreation equipment on hand. It is also thoughtful to have alternative instructional materials, and enlarged print copies of materials or at least the ability to get them. Assess the needs of students and participants in your classes, courses, and programming. Unfortunately, many people hold back on their needs until they’re asked.
Engage. Most church leaders already try to find ways to engage the congregation more. This is particularly helpful for people with attentional issues, and people who like tactile, hands-on activities. Consider purchasing a clicker system (an automatic audience response system). These systems are integrated with your projector. Wanna survey the flock or check for understanding? Do you want to gauge your congregation’s opinions or thoughts on a particular subject or check to see if their views are anywhere close to in-line with the latest research? Clicker response systems will give you immediate feedback that will post results and project onto your screen right as you ask the question. Just be sure to purchase an accessible clicker system so everyone can be involved, and remember to read the results with the congregation, otherwise your visually impaired guests and members won’t be able to participate and that will defeat the purpose right? Some clicker systems can be easily integrated with your members’ and guests’ cell phones with little to no other equipment needed.
Get Feedback! Speaking of surveys. The best way to know what your congregation needs or wants is to survey them regularly. If there’s something you need to know, take a survey. There are some great free online survey resources. Be sure to offer your survey on paper too. You might start with topical surveys. “How welcoming is our parking situation?” or you might choose a comprehensive approach about facilities, programs, and services. Some churches are incorporating online anonymous comments and suggestions. Be sure to listen, and let people know you used the surveys in your decision-making, and remember some responses should be taken with a grain of salt, and others with expedience. They key is letting them know the feedback matters.
Make your welcome official! Consider making a welcome packet for families with connections related to disabilities or at least make those resources available in your current welcome packet. Sometimes people just need to know they’re welcome, and they need to hear it and see evidence that you really care.
Assume competence! Train your staff to always assume that people with disabilities no matter how seemingly simple or complex the disability, are competent and able to participate, they just may need some adaptations.
Check it out! Church libraries and media centers should provide a variety of materials and resources. It’s great to have plenty of audio resources and books on hand as well or at least a way for members to request or order them. The church library is also a great built-in resource to start a request or check-in/check-out service for assistive technologies or picking up a disposable set of noise reducing ear plugs.
Go team! Start an access team, or dare I suggest, “committee.” An access team or committee can address accessibility in your church and find ways to make your services and programs more accessible. If you initiate a team, it’s great to have some people with differing abilities on the team for perspective. If your church is larger and has the resources, nothing would say you care about these issues more than adding a paid-staff member to your leadership—maybe a Pastor or Director of Welcome and Access. These teams or individuals can consistently address not only needs of people with varying abilities, but they can also assist in plugging people into the church service and leadership roles and making sure the facility, events, and resources are accessible to everyone.
In the end, the most welcoming aspect of a church is the attitudes, openness, and compassion of its people. Taking action by doing any or all of the tips I’ve listed will begin to send the message that everyone matters at your church and that everyone is not only welcome to attend, but to participate in sharing a message that will impact hearts and ultimately change the world.
*This article first appeared as a guest post on Greg Atkinson’s blog. Greg is founder of Worship Impressions and has a cool new book called Church Mystery Shopper. You should check it out!
BIO: Dr. Chester Goad is a university administrator and graduate instructor, a former K12 principal and teacher, former US Congressional staffer, author and blogger. He is co-author of Tennessee’s “Dyslexia Is Real” law and he has presented on disability and leadership-related topics from Appalachia to Africa. He sits on nationally recognized disability related boards. A leader in education, non-profit advocacy, parenting issues, access and policy, Chester has been quoted in major media outlets such as CNBC, Yahoo, the Washington Post, Forbes Leadership, and others. He is a contributing writer for the Huffington Post, The Good Men Project, and Edutopia. More importantly, he loves God and is an active member of his local church. You can learn more about Chester by visiting his website at www.chestergoad.com. He and his wife live in Tennessee with their teenage son.