International Day of People with a Disability


Today, 3rd December, has been designated as the International Day of People with a Disability. Parishes might use the occasion to review strategies that have been, and could be, employed to ensure that liturgical celebrations are inclusive and welcoming of people with disability.

Many parishes have already taken steps to provide access for those who use walking aids and wheelchairs. While most church carparks now have designated bays for people with physical disability, they are not always located conveniently or wide enough to allow easy access.

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. Perhaps some pews in the church could be removed so that people using wheelchairs, walkers or strollers can sit with their families. In addition, consideration needs to be given to their access to the communion line and to toilet facilities.

Parishes might also look at providing some chairs with arms for older people and the physically infirm who find it difficult to sit for lengthy periods or to stand from a sitting position without support.

One person in three over the age of 65 either wears or needs a hearing aid and the incidence of acquired deafness in the community is increasing. This indicates that parishes need to give serious thought to installing audio loops in the worshipping space so that people with hearing impairment can participate fully in the liturgy.

I have seen people struggling to read responses or hymn words on pew bulletins. Parishes should consider providing a large print version (font size of at least 18) to assist vision impaired members of the assembly.

Those with physical disability have a right to contribute their gifts in the area of liturgical ministry. A little bit of thinking outside of the square will often come up with strategies to enable people with physical disabilities to use their gifts in carrying out various liturgical ministries at Mass.

The repetitive and predictable nature of liturgy means that it is more accessible to people with intellectual disability than many other areas of life. Liturgy planners need to consider how parishioners are impacted 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?

Other questions that need to be asked include: Do we need a sign language interpreter? Are there clearly marked steps and handrails for the sight impaired? Are communion arrangements for coeliacs well publicised?
The best way to begin addressing issues of inclusivity is to talk with people with disability about their needs and involve them in assessing the current situation and planning for change.

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.

Inspire us to build a Church that is welcoming and accepting, and which sees everyone as an expression of Christ. Give us the courage to be the light of welcome in the darkness of exclusion, a voice of gentleness in the wilderness of the unheard and an outstretched hand of love to those longing for community.
(from Prayer for People with Disability)

Elizabeth Harrington