"Welcome to worship at (you provide the name) Lutheran church. We're glad you're here!" We have probably all said those words as we greeted people on Sunday. Greeting people with a pleasant welcome is important, but there are many other things we can do to make our worship services more accessible and welcoming to people with disabilities. Because we have not always learned how to respond to people with obvious disabilities, we are often uncomfortable and do not know what to do. The result may be that we ignore or sometimes reject people.
It is always appropriate to offer a friendly greeting. We can simply say "hello." It is always better to make a mistake while trying to be friendly and welcoming than to avoid a person because of your fear of offending. It is OK to ask a person whether he or she needs any help. Wait until the person accepts your offer before you try to help. Avoid pity, and do not be patronizing.
Providing assistive listening devices, having an interpreter to sign the services for the hearing impaired, bulletins and hymnals in large print for people with impaired vision, and special seating for people who use wheelchairs can be helpful.
Be sure to let people know about these resources and make sure ushers know where these resources are located. Provide special training for ushers and greeters, who are often the first people to extend hospitality to worshipers.
A multisensory approach in preaching, teaching, or making presentations makes good sense because all worshipers will benefit. Everyone has a preferred method of learning—auditory, visual, or kinesthetic—whether they have a disability or not. So, do not depend entirely on the spoken word to communicate your message.
Choose bulletin language carefully. Use "people-first" language — language that puts the person first and the disability second. Say, for example, "worshipers with a hearing impairment may request assistive listening devices," as opposed to "disabled worshipers...." When giving directions, allow options (for examples, "standing or seated," or "kneeling or seated").
The celebration of Holy Communion is the time when all of God's people are invited to receive the Lord’s body and blood. Make sure that clear instructions are given orally or in writing prior to the distribution, so that everyone gathered will know what to expect. Some people may need assistance getting to the altar or communion station.
Remember that having a disability might limit a person in particular ways, but it does not mean that those with disabilities have no gifts to share. Include people with disabilities in all aspects of worship, including leadership, as they are willing and able. This might require some thought about what needs to be done to facilitate their ministry.
The resources listed below give more specific guidance. You might find That All May Worship: An Interfaith Welcome to People With Disabilities, produced by the National Organization on Disability, particularly helpful. This resource provides extensive guidance in making worship welcoming for people with such disabilities as mobility impairment, visual or hearing impairment, mental illness, developmental disability, learning disability, and chronic illness. For each category the book provides practical and helpful information, including lists of way to improve personal interactions and congregational hospitality.
The worship staff receives a number of similar inquires on worship-related topics from across the church. These responses should not be considered the final word on the topic, but useful guides that are to be considered in respect to local context and with pastoral sensitivity. The responses herein may be reproduced for congregational use as long as the web address is cited on each copy.