Disability Awareness

Disability Awareness

Creating Accessible Congregations

A primary goal of disability awareness continues to be that each congregation in the Episcopal Diocese of Michigan be fully accessible, so you will find a detailed listing on this site of various accessibility and awareness topics below.

1. God welcomes all of us into His kingdom, so we can do no less than welcome persons with disabilities into our congregation.

2. The matriarchs and patriarchs in a congregation often comprise the largest group of people with disabilities. These people, who have founded, funded and nourished a congregation, deserve to continue to be active, not excluded by steps or inadequate lighting or a poor sound system or too small print.

3. Persons with disabilities are also persons with abilities. Potentially, they offer the greatest untapped resource in a congregation.

4. Each of us can learn from persons with disabilities about mortality, patience, the sanctity of suffering, and living productively with a person’s limitations.

5. An accessible congregation is an outward and visible sign to the community that we mean what we say, that we really do welcome ALL people, whatever their disability.

6. Welcoming persons with disabilities teaches our children about diversity and tells them that we need not be perfect to be welcome in the church.

7. Most architectural modifications undertaken on behalf of persons with disabilities benefit the entire congregation.

8. When one person is excluded from the Body of Christ, that Body cannot be complete. While the Body is incomplete, it cannot function fully.

9. God said to St. Paul, “My grace is sufficient unto you. My strength is made perfect in weakness.”

10. Each of us is only temporarily able-bodied. We are only an accident or disease away from being a “person with a disability,” the largest and most diverse minority group.

There are three basic ways to improve accessibility and worship possibilities for people with disabilities.

First, and most important, clergy and parishioners need to have a welcoming attitude. Often, people with disabilities feel as though they are not going to be as welcome as others. A welcoming attitude helps alleviate that concern.

Second, a fundamental need is that your church be physically accessible. Of course, a worship area on the ground level is very desirable, but churches with ramps, elevators and other mechanisms that provide a level walking surface are also very helpful. Additional information regarding a church’s physical accessibility can be found in the Accessibility Survey section.

Third, it is difficult to over-estimate the importance of having an easily accessible restroom that people with disabilities can use. People with disabilities generally feel more welcomed if this important provision is made. There is truth in the observation that people with disabilities will not attend worship if such facilities are not available.

1. Purchase large-print copies of the hymnal and the Book of Common Prayer. If cost is a problem, please contact us for assistance.

2. Consider replacing fixed pews with flexible seating. This will turn your worship space into multipurpose space which will allow persons who are disabled to participate fully in the life of your congregation.

3. Cut the ends of several existing pews so that wheelchair users may be seated with their families and friends rather than in specially designated, segregated sections.

4. If there are steps to your chancel and sanctuary, consider having a Communion Station on the floor of the nave. This allows young children, elderly persons, and persons with disabilities to receive the Sacrament in exactly the same way the rest of the congregation is doing.

5. Involve persons with disabilities in all planning for architectural modifications.

6. Think about converting two side by side bathrooms into one accessible uni-sex bathroom. Allow enough space for a wheelchair to turn around, and be sure to allow transfer space on both sides of the toilet.

7. Provide a paper cup dispenser near your water fountain. This will transform an inaccessible fountain into one accessible to wheelchair users.

8. If wheelchair users volunteer in your office, consider raising the height of your work surfaces so that the wheelchairs can fit comfortably at desk or table.

9. Suggest that your hearing-impaired parishioners sit close to the front of the nave where they can see the preacher and lectors. Ask the preacher and lectors to speak distinctly and slowly and to look frequently at the congregation since much lip reading takes place with persons who are hearing-impaired.

10. Install long-handled door hardware which is easier to everyone to use, especially those with impaired hand function.

11. Survey your microphone and sound system to make sure it meets the needs of those with high-frequency sound loss. Install headphones in selected pews, if necessary.

12. Apply brightly colored, textured strips at the tops of stairs to indicate that stairs are being approached. This will help not only persons who are visually-impaired, but also any person carrying something which blocks his/her vision.

13. Take altar flowers and service bulletins to people who are sick or shut-in.

14. Provide regular transportation for persons who are elderly or homebound to services and other parish activities.

15. Maintain regular communication with persons who are homebound so that they may continue to feel part of the parish.

16. Include children in plans to visit nursing homes and persons who are shut-in.

17. Discover and utilize sources of large-print, taped or Braille books, magazines and Bibles.

18. Develop a Christian Education day in which participants learn about life as a person with a disability.

19. Invite outside speakers to visit the parish and talk about issues and needs of people who have disabilities.

20. Show one or more videos about disability concerns.

21. Plan an adult education segment to discuss the non-architectural barriers to inclusiveness.

22. Remove snow and ice promptly from all sidewalks and parking lots.

23. Make a survey of current church lighting to ensure that the wattage is high enough and that the placement of textures ensures maximum visibility.

24. Make yourself knowledgeable of the needs of those persons with invisible handicaps such as diabetes, epilepsy, high blood pressure, mental illness, etc. In an adult education session, share information about these disabilities.

25. Develop discussion about and/or group support for conditions such as diabetes, cancer, epilepsy, stroke, etc.

26. Hold all fellowship activities and meetings in areas accessible to all, For instance, in the narthex, outside when weather permits, etc.

27. Encourage one-to-one relationships between persons who are elderly and youth or young couples.

28. Enlist the expertise of your parishioners (carpenters, plumbers, contractors, persons with disabilities, teachers, social workers, nurses) to accomplish simple accessibility and awareness tasks.

29. For your parish library, develop a section of resources on disability concerns.

30. Look for educational opportunities about disabilities and disability issues in your community.

31. Encourage parishioners to designate memorial gifts for accessibility projects.

32. Organize a Beep-baseball game, inviting one of the organized teams of blind people to play a team of your own blindfolded parishioners.

33. Visit accessible churches in your area.

34. Consult with local nursing homes to ascertain whether your parish might establish a ministry to and with their residents.

35. Share your facilities with organizations which serve persons who have disabilities or are homebound.

36. Consider getting involved in congregate dining, Meals on Wheels, or your own feeding program for persons with disabilities. You may want to share this ministry with other parishes in your community.

37. Set aside a bulletin board to display information and materials related to your accessibility project.

38. Explore ways of including members of your parish who are disabled in the education, fellowship and ministry as well as in the worship of the congregation. You might consider training them as lay readers or chalice bearers, asking them to teach in the church school program or to volunteer in the church office.

39. Seek ways of working with other denominations in your community on projects related to disability access and ministry.

40. Volunteer time at a day-care center, hospital, or rehabilitation center so that you may come to know and understand persons with disabilities better.

41. If you have persons with severe visual impairments in your congregation, install signage in Braille or raised letters.

42. If you have persons in your congregation who are deaf or severely hearing-impaired, install a light, rather than sound, cued fire alarm.

43. In the context of a Bible study or perhaps in a sermon, explore the differences between “healing” and “cure.” All people can receive God’s healing grace; not all persons will be cured.

44. Since many members of your congregation are employers and two-thirds of all people with severe disabilities are unemployed, become knowledgeable about issues around employment of persons who have disabilities; both from the employers’ and the employees’ viewpoints.

45. Develop a team of parishioners willing to write and call elected officials to lobby for legislation in the areas of accessible transportation and housing, employment for all who wish to work, and other issues pertinent to persons who are handicapped.

46. Survey your neighborhood to learn whether there are unmet needs, especially among persons who are elderly, homebound, or who have disabilities.

47. Many recreational activities such as cross-country skiing, canoeing, roller-skating, and camping can be enjoyed by persons who have disabilities, especially if they are partnered with an able-bodied person.

48. Educate yourself and your parishioners about environmental illnesses. Survey your cleaning supplies with mindfulness toward environmental sensitivities.

49. Suggest that your parishioners monitor the quantity of perfume, hair spray, or aftershave they use.

50. Designate your church and parish house a non-smoking area.

51. Let your diocese and denominational office know about your hopes and concerns for action in ministry with persons who are disabled.

52. Understand, accept and celebrate your own limitations. All of us are who we are because of, not in spite of, our limitations.

Religion and Disability Program of the National Organization on Disability (NOD) – This interfaith effort urges national faith groups, local congregations and seminaries to identify and remove barriers of architecture, communications, and attitudes. The program helps to sponsor That All May Worship conferences, conferences that bring together people with disabilities and religious leadership to plan improved access – both physical and spiritual – in houses of worship. The program also provides Audit of Barriers, a checklist to identify barriers of architecture, communications and attitude in your congregation; N.O.D. Interfaith Guides which assist congregations to become more welcoming to people with disabilities; and Religion and Disability Resources, links to other organizations.

Episcopal Disability Network (EDN) – EDN’s mission is to enable each child of God regardless of the severity of his or her disability to be an integral member of the Body of Christ, to participate in the sacraments of the church, and to discern and live out his or her calling as a Christian. EDN has links to many disability-related groups.

There are no barriers to belonging to the community of faith that the people of God cannot overcome.

What price would you be willing to pay to become part of a church community? Would you be willing to face ridicule, rejection and inaccessibility? Would you be willing to fight misunderstandings and devaluing remarks from others? Would you be willing to suffer the humiliation of being carried up and down stairs in a wheelchair?

It is estimated that up to 15% of people experience some form of disability. The rest are only temporarily able-bodied. Four out of five people will likely become disabled in their lifetime due to mental difficulties, physical disabilities, hearing loss or severe visual impairment.

Ninety percent of people with disabilities are not active in church. They find the price of church participation high. This is largely due to our lack of understanding and awareness. Persons with disabilities desire what others desire: to be part of a caring, loving community of faith.

When one person’s needs or gifts are ignored, that person is automatically isolated. When buildings are structurally inaccessible, those using wheelchairs or having limited mobility are left outside. When the word is spoken only, those with hearing problems are denied the message. And when literature is distributed, those who cannot read or see are left in the dark. Those barriers can be overcome by the people of God if they desire it and if they learn of the changes needed. The process begins with the recognition that the church needs the gifts of persons with disabilities, even as such persons need the nurture of the church.

Some of the toughest barriers to overcome in relating to disabled persons are our attitudes that too often are shaped by fear based on lack of information. To become knowledgeable we must get to know disabled persons and invite them to participate with us in the church. The opposite of love is not hate. It is indifference, and that can be a deadly attitude.

Use this checklist to begin building awareness.

1. Who are the persons in our congregation with disabilities?
2. How many persons in our congregation are inactive because of disabilities or attitudes toward them?
3. How are we dealing with the fear of disabilities and our discomfort with disabled persons?
4. How are we welcoming persons with disabilities in our congregation?
5. Do we perceive persons with disabilities as created in the image of God?
6. Are persons with disabilities given opportunities to serve the church?
7. Are we living into the truth that disability does not have to mean inability, liability, inferiority, weakness and dependency?
8. Do we expect persons in our congregation to participate in the life of the church as much as they are able?
9. Would our congregation accept a pastor with physical disabilities?
10. Are persons with disabilities invited to have active roles in worship?
11. Is transportation available for those who are disabled or for elderly persons who do not drive?
12. Are large print hymnals and bulletins available in our church to those who wish to use them?
13. Are worship services available online?
14. Are amplification aids available to those who are hard of hearing?
15. Are interpreters available for the deaf?
16. Are sermons available in print for hard of hearing and deaf persons?
17. In addition to the spoken word, is the biblical message in our church presented visually, dramatically and musically?
18. Are books on disabilities that provide awareness and information available in our church library?
19. Does our Christian education department include children with disabilities in regular or special classes where they are taught about God’s love?
20. Are we committed to listening to the concerns, needs and desires of persons with disabilities?

If attitudes are positive, but the building itself inhibits or prevents entrance or participation in worship, education and fellowship of the church, then significant barriers remain. Making no provision for hard-of-hearing and deaf people, or blind persons and persons with mental handicaps is a way of saying, You’re not welcome here.

Use this checklist as a beginning way to evaluate your church meeting space. Determine how accessible your church already is and what changes remain to be made.


  1. Are clearly marked accessible parking spaces close to the church building?
  2. Can one get from a parked car into the building without going up or down steps?
  3. Are walks at least 48 inches wide with a gradient no greater than 5%?
  4. Do walks have a level platform at the door that is 5 feet x 5 feet and extends at least 1 foot beyond each side of the door?


  1. Do ramps have a slope no greater than 1 foot rise in 12 feet and a width of no less than 36 inches?
  2. Do ramps have handrails on at least one side 32 inches above the surface?
  3. Do ramps have level platforms in front of doors that have at least 5 feet of straight clearance?
  4. Are ramps protected from rain and winter icing?
  5. Do steps avoid abrupt nosing?
  6. Do stairs have handrails on both sides 32 inches high as measured from the tread at the face of the riser?
  7. Are open stairs provided with a means of warning blind persons of their existence, such as slightly raised abrasive strips at the approach?


  1. Do doors have a clear opening of 32 inches or more?
  2. Are doors operable by a single effort? Note: Double doors are not usable by many with disabilities unless they operate by single effort, or unless one door is 32 inches wide.
  3. Are doors operable with pressure (81 pounds or less) that could reasonably be expected from disabled persons?
  4. Do doors with latch hardware have levers or other easy grip handles?

Worship Space

  1. Are there seating spaces with extra leg room for disabled persons with crutches, walkers, braces or casts?
  2. Are at least two seats provided for wheelchair users? Note: Several pews could be shortened by 36 inches.
  3. Is the chancel area accessible to disabled persons to speak or sing in the choir?
  4. Does lighting (windows, stained glass, etc.) behind the speaker avoid glare?
  5. Is there adequate lighting everywhere in the sanctuary?


  1. Is there at least one accessible toilet on each floor?
  2. Are towel dispensers mounted no higher than 40 inches from the floor?
  3. Do toilet rooms have turning space 5 feet x 5 feet to allow traffic of individuals in wheelchairs?
  4. Is there at least one toilet stall that is at least 36 inches wide, 48 inches clear depth from door closing to front of commode and a 32 inch door that swings out?
  5. Does the accessible toilet stall have grab bars on each side?
  6. Is there a sink wall mounted with 29 inches of clearance from floor to bottom of the sink?
  7. Are faucet controls easy to operate, requiring no difficult finger or hand action?

Water Fountains

  1. Is there at least one water fountain accessible to people in wheelchairs?
  2. Is the water fountain mounted with a basin no more than 36 inches from the floor?
  3. Are the water fountains easily hand operated?


  1. If your church is multi-story, does it have an elevator or chair lift usable by persons who are physically disabled?
  2. Are all controls 54 inches or less from the floor?
  3. Is there a handrail on at least one side 32 inches from the floor?

Hospitality is not an additional courtesy; it is a central component of the Christian message, attitude and behavior; therefore, it is integral to the liturgical celebration of the Christian faithful. Ministers of Hospitality have the rich opportunity to be the first to welcome, and perhaps to recognize and acknowledge the giftedness of a parishioner who has a disability. They may be the ones to help a congregation dispel attitudinal and physical barriers that hinder some people from participating fully in worship.

The following suggestions can help Ministers of Hospitality (and all of us) make a church warmer and more accommodating to persons with disabilities.

  • Acknowledge people with disabilities.
  • Speak directly to the person. Don’t treat a companion as the intermediary.
  • A warm, friendly conversation and a handshake create a welcoming environment.
  • It is never wrong to offer assistance; but LISTEN to the response and ABIDE BY IT.
  • Do not take hold of a person using crutches, a walker or a white cane unless they indicate a need for assistance.
  • Do not touch or move wheelchairs or crutches or other devices out of reach of the person who uses them. These are extensions of one’s person and should be treated as such.
  • Seat worshippers with disabilities with their family and friends.
  • Ask where s/he would like to receive communion (if this is part of the worship) and communicate this to the Eucharistic minister(s).
  • When in conversation, speak moderately loud, but do not shout.
  • Have pen and paper available; sometimes a written message is the best communication.
  • Become acquainted with the location and operation of assistive listening devices.
  • When greeting a person who has a visual impairment, identify yourself.
  • Give directions and explanations clearly and simply.
  • If a person wishes to be led, offer an arm, walk slightly ahead and proceed normally, avoiding sudden or jerky movements.
  • Offer assistance during Communion (if that is part of the worship) by extending an elbow; never grab or push.
  • Offer the bulletin or order of worship, whether or not you think a person can read or comprehend it.
  • Offer Braille or large print worship aids and hymnals if they’re available.
  • Identify parishioners who would assist persons with disabilities by sharing a hymnal, explaining the service, extending invitations to socials and making appropriate introductions.Adapted from an article published in “Pastoral People” (newsletter from the Diocese of Buffalo), Ralph Beland (Diocese of Venice) and NCPD Staff.

Supporting those with Disabilities

Being responsive and receptive to the needs of the disabled is very important to our diocese. Below are links to various Michigan-based resources for people with disabilities, including a form where you can report unwelcoming architecture or attitudes toward the disabled in congregations/organizations within the Diocese of Michigan.

  • Michigan Disability Resources – Find the services and programs for people with disabilities offered by the State of Michigan as well as other sites of interest. Whether you’re looking for assistance in finding a job, want to learn about the latest assistive technology, or have a question about your rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act, you will find it here.
  • Disability Network Michigan – Disability Network/Michigan represents the collective voice of Michigan’s 15 Centers for Independent Living (CILs). Our focus is on leadership development, relationship building, effective communication and mobilizing around issues that will have the greatest impact on delivering high-quality independent living services to people with disabilities.
  • Great Lakes Loan Closets – Great Lakes Loan Closets is designed to help residents of Michigan find organizations that lend medical equipment for minimal or no cost.