If your church wants to be more accessible to people with disabilities, there are several things that can be done immediately to jump start the process. Most of them take more time than money, but none of them require a huge time commitment. Here are 5 simple things I learned from watching Mom wheel Dad into church when I was a kid, from taking our son with special needs to church, from teaching kids with special needs, and from parents raising kids with disabilities. Each item in this list will make your church more accessible. The last one might motivate you to implement more inclusion efforts in your church and beyond.
#1: Improve Signage
From the parking lot to the foyer to the hallways, assess and upgrade signage as needed. Label the most accessible entrances as “quiet” or “family” entrances rather than “disabled” or “handicapped.” Make sure your welcome center is clearly marked so newcomers see right away where to go for information. Have signs inside entrances that indicate how to get to the nursery, the children’s program, and any other programs you have available.
#2: Train Greeters and Ushers
Train greeters to be observant and discerning as people arrive. When families walk through the door your greeters can direct those with babies and children to the nursery and children’s program. They can help point out accessible bathrooms and seating to people with mobility issues, or escort those with visual or hearing impairment to accommodation devices. It is a great idea to train ushers as well in case someone slips past the greeters in a crowd, and for those who come after the greeters have left their posts.
#3: Move the Furniture
Look at how the furniture is arranged in your foyers and classrooms. Is there room to maneuver a wheelchair or walker in those spaces? If not, declutter and move the furniture to create easy pathways for everyone. If your worship area has pews, cut some of them down to make spaces for wheelchairs and walkers. If your worship area has chairs, leave spaces open on the aisles for the same purpose. Intersperse these spaces throughout the worship area rather than concentrating them in the front or back row so those with disabilities feel like they are part of the congregation rather than observers on the sidelines.
#4: Open Doors
Get in a wheelchair and test every door in your church to see if it can be opened by someone who uses mobility equipment. When you discover the doors that fail the test (and there will be plenty), work to create a solution. You might prop doors open on Sunday morning or have someone positioned near the doors to open and shut them. Most important, though, is reminding your congregation members to watch for those with mobility issues so they can offer to help.
#5: Study Matthew 19:14
Encourage fellow church goers to study and meditate upon Matthew 19:14: “Jesus said, ‘Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.’” (ESV)
Ask each other, Who is excluded from approaching Jesus in this passage? Then apply the passage to your congregation. Ask, Who is excluded from approaching Jesus at your church? Then identify what excludes them and look for ways to change that. Also ask the Holy Spirit to touch hearts to make your church more accessible to people with disabilities and special needs. And be prepared, when God answers those prayers, to seek ways to make your church more accessible to everyone who needs Jesus.
Jolene Philo grew up with a disabled father and raised a child with special needs. She has also welcomed kids with special needs into her elementary classroom for 25 years. She is the author of several books about special needs parenting, caregiving, and special needs ministry. She blogs at www.DifferentDream.com and speaks around the country about special needs parenting and inclusion ministry. Jolene and her husband live in Iowa, are parents to two adult children, and are known as Grammy Jo and Papoo to their three adorable grandchildren. You can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.