As readers of the blog may know, religious entities are exempt from the Americans with Disabilities Act, making it easier for faith-based institutions to disregard or not consider making worship services and materials accessible for disabled populations. In preparation for my doctoral capstone this semester, I reached out to many churches and faith-based organizations to see if they would be interested in working with me, an OT student, on making their churches and ministries more accessible. While the pandemic had definitely presented itself as a barrier to me working with any specific organizations or churches, I also noticed that many of the pastors and lay ministers I met and talked to would tell me that their church “has no need for adding accommodations” because they simply “did not have people with disabilities at their church.”
While this may have been true, I had reason to doubt, seeing as people with disabilities are less likely to attend religious services than non-disabled people. If a church community wanted to increase membership and ensure that people feel welcomed in their space, it could be beneficial to begin implementing some common accessibility options. However, it can be tough to know where to start, so I thought I would write a beginner’s list on some tips I thought of for making churches more physically accessible for people with disabilities.
Make your worship aids accessible
In occupational therapy settings, we often discussed best-practices for making content accessible to all. As churches continue to have services both online and in person as the state of the COVID-19 pandemic begins to improve, now could be a great time to consider making some changes to your worship aids. At many churches, services begin with people walking in and grabbing a hymnal or a print-off of the order of service or the music and readings for the day. When creating these print-offs, it is considered best practice to use large fonts, usually size 16 to 20. These fonts should also be commonly used, straight lettering, and should be put in a dark color contrasted against a white or lightly colored background. This way, the 32.2 million Americans who have difficulty with vision can easily read the important information on your worship aid.
Worried about the cost of printing these larger text documents? Consider continuing to publish these worship aids online and linking them on your website. This way, you can save on paper copies, and people who have difficulty with vision or reading can use apps on their phones or tablets to read the text to them, or they can zoom in on the text themselves. Just be sure to make the text selectable on your phone or tablet, which can be easily done by making the document a PDF.
Along these same lines, make sure that the text you publish is not inserted as a photo. While it is very popular with Christians to post beautiful imagery of scripture passages written in calligraphy, these photos are not easily accessible for people with visual impairments. If you would still like to use these photos in your worship aids and social media posts, try incorporating alt text on these photos so that everyone can virtually access them.
Reconsider what it means to “read the Bible”
If your church has stained glass of images of scenes from the Bible, you may have grown up hearing that these images were put in churches before the invention of the printing press for people who could not read to learn important Bible stories. In my practice as an OT, I meet plenty of individuals who do not read written language, and instead use images to communicate. For this reason, it could be a good idea to utilize images like the ones here from Free Bible Images to tell Biblical stories without written words. These images come in stories like this one of the Parable of the Lost Sheep which you can download with their captions for easy access. While I like this resource for children, you may notice that the images can be cartoonish and child-like. For adults, you may consider revisiting the resource I linked last week by Books Beyond Words that has more adult-friendly images on attending church, or the live photos from Free Bible Images which have photos of actors instead of cartoons to tell Bible stories.
Using closed captioning or live transcripts
Whether your church projects videos of your pastor, or you are continuing to livestream services for the foreseeable future (which is a recommendation I made in last week’s post), there are many tools available now for live transcripts and easy closed captioning to use. Many churches are currently using Zoom to both have virtual meetings and live stream. Zoom, Google Meet, and YouTube all have automatic captioning software, my favorite of which is usually YouTube’s since you can go back in and edit the text after publishing. Zoom and Google Meet have both worked well for me as well, just make sure your software is up to date!
Consider implementing the standards for ADA design
While churches are exempt from the Americans with Disabilities Act, the ADA website will always have easy to access documents about how businesses, medical facilities, and other public spaces are to be designed for accommodations. For example, if your church’s sanctuary is large and structured like a concert hall like many evangelical churches across the US are, you may want to skim to the ADA’s requirements for stadiums, which includes information on wheelchair seating, accessible entrances and exits, and safety tools like alarms and signs. In looking the ADA website, you may realize there are areas of your church that are not ADA compliant that you may have never considered before that could be an easy fix for your community.
When in doubt, ask!
Disability rights groups have often used the phrase “Nothing About Us Without Us.” As mentioned in last week’s blog, many people who have disabilities may not appear disabled or may not have a formal diagnosis. As a non-disabled person myself, I know that the experts on experiences with individual disabilities are the people who identity with these disabilities themselves. In a systematic review I read recently for my capstone project, it was noted that multiple studies that gathered data from people with disabilities and their caregivers have found that these individuals feel their churches would benefit from a person who acts as a leader or advocate for people with disabilities within the community. A position like this, especially if held by a person with a disability, that congregants could contact for questions or concerns they may have, would allow opportunities for conversations on improving accessibility. Even if a church is unable to hire someone for this position, even including announcements or a drop box for suggestions could be a good first step to opening up conversations on this topic for your community.