Including People with Disability in Liturgy


I grew up in an era when the so-called 'handicapped' were seldom seen and certainly never heard. They were looked upon as objects of pity and recipients of charity rather than as truly human. Thank goodness things have changed and today people with disability are generally recognised as having the same rights and entitlements as everyone else and as being valuable members of society.
The outcome given highest priority at Synod 2003 was "That parish liturgy become more vibrant, meaningful and inclusive". One of the proposed actions for achieving this outcome is for parishes to ensure that their liturgy is inclusive and welcoming of people with disability. How well are we as parish communities and as individuals doing in this area?
The most obvious place to start, and in many ways the easiest to deal with, is the provision of access for those who use walking aids and wheelchairs. While many church carparks now have designated bays for people with physical disability, they are not always wide enough to allow easy access or located conveniently.
While an effort has been made in many places to provide an entrance for wheelchairs, ramps that lead to rarely used doors continue to convey the message of marginalisation. If at all possible, people with handicap should be able to enter the main door of the church along with everyone else.
Once inside, wheelchair users need a place in the church which does not block the aisle and where they do not feel that they are in the way. Consideration also needs to be given to their access to the communion line and to toilet facilities.
Those with physical disability have a right to contribute their gifts in the area of liturgical ministry. Some years ago, one of the best readers in my own parish was a young lady with cerebral palsy who could not stand at the lectern. A desk and mike were set up beside the ambo so that she could sit to read.
The repetitive and predictable nature of liturgy means that it is more accessible to people with intellectual disability than many other areas of life. What effect does it have then when the people's responses are continually changed, or when the assembly is expected to follow printed words in a detailed order of service? Are we confining participation in liturgy to those with good facility with written language?
Parishes also need to consider questions such as: Is there a loop system in place for those who have difficulty hearing? Do we need a sign language interpreter? Are there clearly marked steps and handrails for the sight impaired? Is the printing on the parish bulletin large enough for everyone to read? Are communion arrangements for coeliacs well publicised?
The best way to address issues of inclusivity is to employ an inclusive strategy. Talk with people with disability about their needs, involve them in assessing the current situation and planning for change, tap into their wisdom.
As individuals, we need to ask ourselves how welcoming we are of fellow members of the body of Christ with levels of physical and mental ability different from our own.

Elizabeth Harrington