Disability & Accessibility Questions
- Where can our church find funding for accessibility projects? Are grants available?
- How do we go about completing an accessibility audit of our church property? Is there a form to use? Is there assistance available? Why do we need to do this?
- How can we retrofit our older church building on a budget? Are there cost-effective options for accessible bathrooms and lifts? Where do we start?
- Are there guidelines for providing accessible parking?
- How do I locate a disability ministry in my area?
- How do we start a disability ministry?
- We have children attending Sunday School who are on the autism spectrum or have challenging behavior. How can we best meet the faith development needs of these students?
- We have or want to start a Sunday School class for youth or adults with developmental and intellectual disabilities. Where can we find age-appropriate curriculum?
- Are there guidelines for service and emotional support animals in church settings?
- We have a member who is blind and wants to sing in the choir. How can we obtain Braille hymnals and other Braille materials? What about people who don’t read Braille?
- What is Disability Awareness Sunday? Where can we find resources on how to celebrate Disability Awareness Sunday?
- How can we locate speakers to address disability-related topics at conferences and workshops?
- Does the DisAbility Ministries Committee have disability ministries overseas?
- How can I volunteer with the conference level or national DisAbility Ministries Committee (DMC)?
Lynn Swedberg, 2018
The DisAbility Ministries Committee offers small grants ($500 – $1000) for accessibility and disability ministry program development in United Methodist churches, per Resolution 3001 in The Book of Resolutions. The grant cycle ends on June 30. You can find applications in the Grant Application section of our website. The Deaf and Hard of Hearing Committee of the UMC offers Grants and Scholarships for Deaf ministry and improving hearing accessibility, for instance through the installation of a hearing loop system.
Check with your Annual Conference Disability Concerns committee to find out if conference funding is available. We compiled Funding Resources Available to Local Churches for Accessibility Projects, which lists the conference grants of which we are aware, and other potential sources. You will find other ideas in Money and Ideas: Creative Approaches to Congregational Access, a publication of the Alban Institute and the National Organization on Disability. In general, there are not many outside resources, and most funding comes from someone connected to the congregation who has a passion to make the church facilities useable by everyone.
You can help make grants available through your gifts and offerings. Donate through the Advance – Disability Ministries #3021054.
2.How do we go about completing an accessibility audit of our church property? Is there a form to use? Is there assistance available? Why do we need to do this?
Per Paragraph 2533.6 of The Book of Discipline 2016, “The board of trustees shall conduct or cause to be conducted an annual accessibility audit of their buildings, grounds, and facilities to discover and identify what physical, architectural, and communication barriers exist that impede the full participation of persons with disabilities and shall make plans and determine priorities of the elimination of all such barriers. It is highly encouraged that members of the congregation or from the community who have disabilities, who are family members of persons with disabilities, and who are builders or architects or rehabilitation professionals be involved in conducting the audit. The Accessibility Audit for churches shall be used in filling out the annual church and/or charge conference reports.”
The DisAbility Ministries Committee (DMC) has developed an Accessibility Audit for this purpose, which is found on the General Council on Finance and Administration (GCFA) Forms and Resources page and well as the DMC website. A bishop or an annual conference Disability Concerns Committee (Paragraph 653, Book of Discipline) may elect to substitute another audit, but we encourage churches to complete the above-referenced audit. Your conference committee (see list of links to the committees we know about) or the DMC will be happy to find someone to assist you to complete the audit. We are also developing print and video guidelines to help you confidently carry out the audit.
Once you have completed the audit and found that you meet minimum accessibility standards, be sure to make the information available on your church website and Find-a-Church site, so that people searching for accessible churches can find you. You will be able to add an “Accessible and Disability-friendly Badge” to your sites if you meet certain criteria based on the completed audit.
3. How can we retrofit our older church building on a budget? Are there cost-effective options for accessible bathrooms and lifts? Where do we start?
Once a person is in the building, access to an accessible restroom is vital. Having at least one single accessible family restroom will meet many needs, especially if a spouse or parent of the opposite gender needs to assist a family member. Often a little-used closet can be converted, as approximately 6’ by 6’ is sufficient space. Using donated or volunteer labor can reduce your costs. Crucial features are a 36” wide door, a toilet that is at least 17” high, a grab bar by the toilet, and an open style sink with padded pipes that someone using a wheelchair can reach without risk of injury to their legs. Paper towels and soap can be on the counter to ensure they are within reach. The bottom edge of a mirror should be no higher than 40”. See the ADA Plumbing Elements chapter from the Access Board for specific details.
For buildings with stairs and multiple levels, a number of options are possible. Each possibility has drawbacks and advantages. Ramps can be hard to maintain in four-season climates, and with a 1 foot length needed for every 1 inch of rise they are not practical for most applications. Yet, with volunteer labor and donations, they are the least costly to install. Considerations for outdoor ramps include providing railings, having a non-slip surface, and having a curb or lower rail no higher than 4” off the surface to prevent wheels and feet from slipping. Elevators are the most expensive, but also the most versatile. A variety of lifts are more affordable, but each has limitations. Churches often wish to install a chair lift, and for some narrow staircases with turns they may be the only option. Consider that people who have difficulty transferring from one surface to another will have difficulty using them, and that persons seated in heavy power wheelchairs will not be able to have their wheelchair available to them at the end of the run. A more versatile lift is the inclined platform lift which folds up against the wall until needed and can transport people seated in wheelchairs or standing, and items such as TV carts. Enclosed vertical lifts are often used for chancel access. LULA lifts (limited use limited application elevators) can be installed in a shaft and traverse up to several floors at an affordable cost. See the January 2012 VOICE article on lifts for photos and explanations of each, and the Accessible Faith booklet (pp. 11-19) for additional information on ramps, elevators, and lifts.
Refer to our article on Accessibility for additional ideas. For example, providing “pew cuts” in various locations throughout the sanctuary is a low-cost measure that conveys welcome. Please remember that many measures you take cost nothing, but rather address attitudes and actions. Complete an Accessibility Audit to help ensure you are addressing these aspects, such as communicating on your church website and Find-a-Church site about the accessibility measures you have in place.
The ability to park and enter the church makes a difference between someone with mobility impairments being able to attend your church or not. Having a covered unloading area at an accessible entrance is a nice feature, but doesn’t meet the needs of attendees who drive or who need to remain with their driver. The ADA guidelines for parking spaces are a good starting place, but the number of spaces suggested may not be sufficient for the needs of a typical congregation with a significant number of retired members. As you plan for parking, consider the following:
• Choose the closest spaces to an accessible entrance, to avoid long distances to get indoors.
• Locate spaces on level ground with a firm surface.
• Provide an access aisle on one side of a space (2 spaces can share one aisle) for unloading purposes.
• Plan the approach to the path of travel to the building via level ground or using a curb cut from the access aisle, so people using wheelchairs don’t have to cross traffic or go behind parked cars, which can be hazardous. The path should be level and firm, and at least 3’ wide.
• Make sure that the spaces, access aisles, and access pathways are kept clear of snow and ice in the winter.
• Follow state guidelines for signage and striping, which usually involve both a painted logo on the space surface and a sign centered at the front of the space
Refer to these specifics regarding the number of spaces to designate:
• For the first 100 spaces, 1 in every 25 spaces should be fully accessible, with an adjacent 5’ access aisle. For the next 100 spaces provide one in 50 spaces, with an additional space for every 100 spaces, up to 500 parking spaces. If you have more than 500 spaces, 2% of the total parking in each lot of structure needs to be accessible.
• At least one space needs to be van accessible, with an 8’ access aisle to allow room for the van ramp to be let down with additional space for the person to exit the ramp.
• 1 in every 6 accessible spaces needs to be van accessible.
• Consider additional parking spaces designated for persons who have difficulty walking distances but do not qualify for the accessible parking placard. If these spaces do not have access aisles, they cannot be designated accessible, have the sign with the access logo, or count towards the number of accessible spaces needed.
For more information, refer to this ADA Compliance Brief which provides a chart to help compute the minimum number of spaces required and shows the space configurations for each type of accessible parking space. See link #15 for a more in-depth document on parking from the Access Board. Always consult state and local building codes, which may be stricter than ADA regulations.
First determine what you are seeking. Disability ministry is an umbrella term that covers a broad range of services and programs, for example:
• Sunday School classes for children, youth, or adults with disabilities who find it hard to participate in a typical classroom
• Designated and trained “buddies” or peer mentors who partner with the person needing support within the typical classroom and worship setting
• Fellowship programs for youth or adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities who find it hard to participate in typical groups and prefer to have some time away from the stress of the typical world
• Outreach ministries that conduct worship services in nursing homes, boarding homes, or group homes
• “No-shush” inclusive worship services, where everyone is free to move, vocalize, and be themselves without disapproval, as an alternative option in churches with multiple services
• Respite programs for children, youth, or adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities, or for adults with dementia
• Faith-based support groups for parents and siblings of children or youth with disabilities
• Supportive housing, e.g. church-sponsored group homes
• Day habilitation or job training programs sponsored by a church or church agency
You will find descriptions of most of these ministries in our newsletter archive. Remember that not every ministry is visible – in fact some inclusive ministries are seamlessly integrated into the life of the congregation. Always ask what is available before assuming that your needs cannot be accommodated.
Some ministries are segregated, involving only persons with disabilities and their leaders, but most try to incorporate participants into the life of the congregation as appropriate. For instance, an adult Sunday School class for persons with intellectual disabilities will encourage members to participate in regular worship, fellowship, and service opportunities. Ministries should continually search for new ways to involve attendees, and to find ways to integrate typical participants alongside members with disabilities.
If your church offers disability ministries of any kind, we encourage you to list these on your church website as well as your Find-A-Church site. Most families will start with a web search when looking to find a church that will be accessible, welcoming, and accommodating to their needs. Parents often use the search term “Special Needs,” a term which we discourage using in your ministry name as this is not a preferred term for adults with disabilities – see this article by Kathie Snowe for more information. You may still want to use the words somewhere on the site so that search engines find your ministry.
The best starting place for a new ministry is to ask currently-involved families about their needs and hopes. You may want to conduct a survey to determine needs and support available. You could use a survey from Erik Carter’s book Including People with Disabilities in Faith Communities. Often family members identify respite and parent support groups as a high priority, but your findings may be very different.
There may also be obvious connections with a nearby group home, inclusive preschool, or day center. It’s fine to start small to give yourself time for program and policy development as well as for volunteer recruitment and training. But be prepared for growth when families realize you provide a place for everyone to belong!
The website offers a number of articles in the Welcoming All section to point you in the right direction. Forming a congregational disability or accessibility committee is almost always helpful, as a single person cannot start a sustainable ministry.
Many ministries operate on a non-denominational or interfaith basis, as people needing specific services tend to go where their needs are met rather than to churches of a specific denomination. Drawing volunteers from more than one congregation is especially useful for respite programs. Examples of ministries hosted or supported by some UM churches include Friendship Ministries which establishes fellowship groups, Rejoicing Spirits which helps congregations develop inclusive “no-shush” worship services, and Nathaniel’s Hope “Buddy Break” respite program.
Please see the next section for information pertaining to developing a Sunday School program that meets the needs of children with disabilities.
7. We have children attending Sunday School who are on the autism spectrum or have challenging behavior. How can we best meet the faith development needs of these students?
Thanks for caring! Remember that every child is different, so there are no hard and fast rules to follow. At the same time, many students on the spectrum benefit from the following measures:
• Ask the family what the student’s strengths and interests are so you can find ways for the child or youth to experience success and to bond with someone who has a similar interest.
• Ask also about factors that might lead to a meltdown or other negative reactions, and ways to avoid or respond to these factors so you can help the student stay in control.
• Limit experiences that lead to sensory overload, e.g. loud music, flashing lights, or give students a way to modulate or escape the experience like wearing ear muffs or taking a break.
• Use all the senses when you teach – the use of visual aids is especially important.
• Provide structure in the program by giving a general overview of the lesson and letting students know where you are in the plan. A visual or picture schedule that uses icons for each activity is one way to accomplish this that will benefit all students. (See Newman’s book.)
• Announce transitions ahead of time so students have a chance to finish their current task and be ready to move to something different.
• Do not expect eye contact if that is a difficult skill for the child, and realize that some children learn better if they are engaged in an activity rather than sitting still.
• Consider having a sensory corner or sensory room where students who need a break can decompress as needed.
• Some children will benefit from an adult mentor or peer “buddy” (typically a high school student) who helps them stay on track.
Contact your conference Disability Concerns committee if you feel your church school teachers need training. Chances are that other churches in your area would also be interested in attending a workshop. The following are good resources that should be in every Sunday School library:
• Christie, Elizabeth, “Including Children with Special Needs in the Life of the Church”, Discipleship Ministries – 14 page downloadable PDF brochure.
• Lee, Amy Fenton, Leading a Special Needs Ministry (2013), Cummings, GA: Orange.
• Mitchum, Naomi, Every Child Can Bloom in the Inclusive Classroom (2015), Houston: Ramps ‘nthings Press. Note: she also offers a comprehensive website filled with many resources.
• Newman, Barbara J., Autism and the Church: Nurturing the Spiritual Growth of People with Autism Spectrum Disorder (2011), Grand Rapids: Friendship Ministries.
8. We have or want to start a Sunday School class for youth or adults with developmental and intellectual disabilities. Where can we find age-appropriate curriculum?
The DisAbilities Ministry Committee (DMC) has been working to address this need. We have a curriculum that has been used successfully by congregations. The “Flames Faith Development and Confirmation Curriculum for Teens and Adults with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities”, has two introductory documents and 12 sessions to download. Materials are written at the 4th grade reading level, but are designed to be of interest to youth and adults.
The lessons may need to be modified for the reading and comprehension level of your participants. We are open to volunteers who will write additional units or adapt existing units to meet a broader set of learning styles and needs.
It is helpful to use Bible translations that use more familiar words. You may find the following translations are easier for participants to follow than the typical NRSV or NIV versions:
Bible Gateway allows you to look up any passage: Select the Easy-to-Read version. The site also offers audio Bibles for persons with difficulty reading the text.
Easy English Bible is a fully on-line version.
New International Readers’s Version is written at the 3rd grade level, and is also available on-line at Bible Study Tools
You will also want to work with the congregation as a whole to ensure that everyone experiences a true welcome and has opportunities to serve and join in fellowship as well as worship. The downloadable document “Welcoming People with Developmental Disabilities and Their Families: A Practical Guide for Congregations” offers many tips.
The book Including People with Disabilities in Faith Communities: A Guide for Service Providers, Families, and Congregations by Erik W. Carter (2007) Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes, is full of useful information.
Qualified service animals are to be welcomed in all aspects of church life, including worship and fellowship times. These working animals have undergone extensive training and you should barely notice they are present. The best known of these are guide dogs for people who are blind. For information on how to interact with services animals, consult our article on adaptations for people who are blind or have low vision . You will want to designate an outdoor area where the owner can take the dog to relieve itself, and help the owner locate this area as needed.
Trained service animals are under the control of their owner at all times, so you will not have problems like inappropriate barking, aggressive behavior, begging or jumping up on the table, or having accidents. If any animal is out of control, you are within your rights to and should ask the owner to take the animal off the premises. ADA Fact Sheet on Service Animals and the Frequently Asked Questions about Service Animals and the ADA may help you understand the current law and implications. There is no certification process for designating valid service animals. The crucial factors are that a) the animal is required because of a disability and that b) the animal has been trained to perform work or tasks to support the person with a disability.
Companion dogs and emotional support animals fall into a different category and often have far less training, as do service dogs in training. You are not required to allow these animals to accompany their owners, though churches may accept them on an individual basis if there is good reason to do so. You may want to establish guidelines. The Anabaptist Disabilities Network offers useful information in their article on Emotional Support Animals .
A potential problem with any animal arises when other members have allergies to pet dander and fur. You will need to work with both the person with allergies and the person using a service animal to develop a plan which keeps them separated. Persons who have excessive fear of dogs may also need their needs accommodated through advanced planning.
10. We have a member who is blind and wants to sing in the choir. How can we obtain Braille hymnals and other Braille materials? What about people who don’t read Braille?
Cokesbury publishes The United Methodist Hymnal and The Faith We Sing which contain the words to the hymns and songs in Braille. Unfortunately due to the large size of these books – the Hymnal consists of seven volumes and The Faith We Sing three volumes- they are expensive to purchase, retailing for over $500 for both sets. Each user needs to have his or her individual hymnal. The volumes come in loose-leaf binders so that the appropriate pages can be removed and transferred to a smaller loose-leaf notebook for each worship service. If you cannot afford to purchase these materials, consider querying your annual conference to see if any congregation has a no-longer-used set available.
Many communities have service centers for persons who are blind that are able to convert text into Braille for a low fee or donation. The National Federation of the Blind maintains a list of Braille Transcription Resources. Sending the order of worship (bulletin) and words for the hymns to the transcription service in a timely manner is a lower cost way of providing the materials.
There are a number of sources for Braille Bibles, such as Braille Bibles International which offers the King James and New King James versions for free to qualifying recipients, and Bibles for the Blind which also has Braille-ready files to download. The Braille Bookstore sells Braille Bibles in more translations.
The majority of people with visual impairments do not read Braille and rely on large print or audio versions of the materials. Many photocopiers can enlarge the font of printed materials to the equivalent of 18 or 20 points – confer with the member who need this service before you select the font size. Use a bold sans serif font such as Arial. See the document Large Print Guidelines for more specific information. Persons with technological skills may have devices that they can use if provided access to the digital files ahead of time, for instance by sending the bulletin and song lyrics by e-mail. These devices include refreshable Braille displays and audio players. With the advent of books on CD and downloadable audio files, many materials can be accessed in a variety of media. For instance, Cokesbury offers The Listener’s Bible, the Upper Room comes in an audio format, and some audio books are available through both publishers.
11. What is Disability Awareness Sunday? Where can we find resources on how to celebrate Disability Awareness Sunday?
Paragraph 265.4 in The Book of Discipline 2016, lists among “Approved Sundays for Annual Conference Observation” the following: “Disability Awareness Sunday shall be observed annually on a date to be determined by the annual conference. Disability Awareness Sunday calls the Church to celebrate the gifts and graces of persons with disabilities and calls the Church and society to full inclusion of persons with disabilities in the community. If the annual conference so directs, an offering may be received and the funds used by the annual conference to promote the creation of architectural and attitudinal accessibility in local churches. “
The DisAbility Ministries Committee (DMC) has gathered a number of United Methodist and ecumenical Disability Awareness Sunday resources that you can use to help you plan your worship service and event. Read Ideas for Celebrating Disability Awareness Sunday to help you get started. There are no hard and fast rules. Be creative and utilize the gifts and ideas of people with disabilities in your congregation and community. Find ways to involve the Sunday School and youth programs as well.
Decide what your topic is. Are you interested in promoting inclusion in Sunday School, starting a new outreach ministry, or learning about accessibility? Disability encompasses a broad set of topics, and intersects with others such as economic justice, housing shortages, and abuse. Or perhaps your interest is in web accessibility, disability and the arts, or adapted sports and games. You might want to select a theme based on unmet needs you have encountered.
Start your search by contacting your annual conference Disability Concerns Committee, or a committee in a neighboring conference if your conference doesn’t have one. Local United Methodist seminaries may have someone on staff with an expertise in disability theology or ministry. Larger churches with established ministries may have speakers. Ask for referrals and names of persons who have presented at regional workshops. If the speaker is from a non-denominational parachurch organization, ask for references from United Methodists who have attended their sessions to ensure that their message will be compatible with Wesleyan theology.
If local networks aren’t yielding the names of speakers, contact the DisAbility Ministries Committee (DMC) at our e-mail address. We have committee members and Resource Persons throughout the country who are available for speaking engagements.
The DisAbility Ministries Committee (DMC) does not currently have any ministries outside the United States. The committee is primarily a resource organization that seeks to network churches and individuals and to provide information via the website and our newsletter. We do not have funding available to establish or support ministries.
We are, however, interested in learning about and promoting ministries in various countries. You can read about some Methodist-related ministries in the following issues from the archive of The VOICE of the United Methodist Disability Connection:
Fall 2013: Deaf mission trip to Kenya, the Disability Ministries program of the Methodist Church in Kenya; Ecumenical conference on women with disabilities and violence; Disability and Deaf ministries in Vietnam, The Philippines, and Sri Lanka; Resources on mission trips.
Spring 2017: Disability ministries in Central America; Embracing disabilities in Bolivia; 40 years of Mariposa Ministry; Other ministries in Latin America; Spanish language resources
Several DMC committee members are involved in disability-related projects in Central America and The Philippines. As a committee we would love to come alongside UMVIM teams to ensure that disability is considered in all mission trips. Our goal is that people with disabilities have the opportunity to serve on mission teams, that construction projects incorporate building accessibility, and that mission events routinely offer accommodations so that children and adults with disabilities can participate.
The United Methodist Committee on Deaf and Hard of Hearing Ministries and the United Methodist Congress of the Deaf have hosted a number of mission trips.
14. How can I volunteer with the conference level or national DisAbility Ministries Committee (DMC)?
Thanks for asking! Start by subscribing to our newsletter so that you understand the values and scope of our ministries.
It is a good idea to start your volunteer work and gain experience locally, then participate in your annual conference disability concerns committee or ministries. If there is no conference committee, gather like-minded people and propose to start an ad hoc committee until you can get official approval. You may find allies in the United Methodist Women and the conference camping program.
If you are already involved in your congregation and conference and feel you have skills and time to share, fill out a “Resource Person Application” form. Please read the “Resource Person Roles” before completing the application, to make sure this commitment is a good fit for you. Both documents are found in the Get Involved section of our website. We will contact you, find out more about your interests, put you in touch with others in your annual conference, and let you know about DMC projects needing volunteer assistance. Resource Persons greatly augment the work on the denominational level, and volunteers can serve on the DMC teams (sub-committees). We draw new committee members from the pool of active Resource Persons. We are also always in need of volunteers who can pray for our ministries.
You can also help by promoting the newsletter and gathering names of persons to add to our mailing list, using the sign-up sheet posted in the Annual Conference Resources section of the website. We also accept submissions of newsletter articles which comply with our Author’s Guidelines (posted on the Get Involved page in the Join us section) and fit the issue theme. Contact Lynn Swedberg, newsletter editor, at our e-mail address to learn more about upcoming topics and how you may contribute to the newsletter.