Removing Barriers: A Step-By-Step Guide to Making Your Parish More Disability Friendly (a Faithtree Resource)
Take time to purposefully consider whether or not your parish is disability-friendly…Once you have given thought to the subject, you’ll likely be aware that there are many areas of parish life to evaluate when determining whether any barriers are present which could prevent full participation for a person or family living with a disability. Barriers can be physical, attitudinal, or even programmatic. (Programmatic Barrier: “any program that cannot be accessed by persons with disability has a barrier that must be considered and intentionally removed.” page 47) So, after completing the analysis of where your parish lands on the disability-friendliness scale, now begins the task of removing existing barriers through education and physical changes. The book Removing Barriers: A Step-By-Step Guide to Making Your Parish More Disability Friendly (a Faithtree Resource), is available to guide your efforts from an Orthodox Christian perspective.
What exactly is a Removing Barriers Effort (RBE)? “More than a special program or a ministry team, a Removing Barriers effort constitutes an ongoing, organized plan for every person to feel welcomed, valued, included and fully able to participate in the Life of the Church, because barriers that might prevent them from doing so have been intentionally removed. The goal is to transition from a place of ignorance or pity into a congregation of co-laborers that serve Christ and His Church together.” (page 16)
Why begin an RBE within your parish?According to the Center for Disease Control, one in five Americans live with or are affected by disability. That is a significant percentage of persons within our country, within our parishes, who are struggling with barriers – significant enough to garner attention within the Church. Oftentimes, families find our churches unprepared, unmindful, or unsure of how to remove barriers that prevent participation. Removing Barriers: A Step-By-Step Guide to Making Your Parish More Disability Friendly points out that“God gave us direct instruction throughout Holy Scripture that repeatedly reminds us of how much He values our love for each other. We hear again and again that God’s expectation of His people is that we provide for each other, and specifically, that we bear one another’s burdens (Galatians 6:2, Philippians 2:4, James 2:14-17) …If we as the Body of Christ here on earth fail to include and incorporate every person in the worship, edification and evangelism in our communities, likewise, we are not functioning as God intends or commanded.” (page 19)
Furthermore, our leadership commands that parishes begin the work of removing barriers. The Standing Conference of the Canonical Orthodox Bishops in the Americas (SCOBA) put forth a statement in 2009 regarding persons with disabilities and including them in the life of the Church. The full statement is on pages 20-25 of Removing Barriers: A Step-By-Step Guide to Making Your Parish More Disability Friendly. A key excerpt reads “…A person with a disability is not necessarily handicapped except through physical and attitudinal barriers created by others. Handicaps are in fact the barriers that we create for people with disabilities by excluding them socially and physically. There are many persons with disabilities even in our own parishes; nevertheless, our parishes have not reached out sufficiently to adults and children with disabilities in its ministry.” (pages 20-21)
How to begin an RBE effort:Fortunately, the book provides a step-by-step guide for planning, forming, and implementing an RBE effort at your parish. Six steps are listed (page 33), along with detailed instructions for each step.
Find your leader
Gather Your Team
Assess Your Need
Develop A Plan
Then, going a step further, instructions are included for constructive results ranging in levels from “no fundraising required”, all the way to “the project requires a strategic team and grant writing may be necessary.” (pg. 54) Seemingly small changes that yield immediate impact include adding welcoming language in the Sunday bulletin, creating a designated section for congregants with sensory sensitivity, or creating a buddy system for children in church school or youth program. (page 54)
Also included in Removing Barriers: A Step-By-Step Guide to Making Your Parish More Disability Friendly is a Basic Disability Primer (page 74-89), which reviews some of the most commonly-experienced disabilities and helps the reader better understand feelings, perceptions, and needs of parishioners living with disability. Even if your parish is not ready to form an RBE team or effort, this Basic Disability Primer is a valuable resource to share with Christian Education staff and leaders of other parish organizations.
Another resource to share with parish leaders and Christian Education staff is the list of 75 Strategies to Help Your Removing Barriers Effort (page 90-98). A suggested list of strategies that can aid Sunday church school teachers during class and make an immediate difference is:
- Ask family members about unusual or inappropriate behavior. Parents can help you understand what the child may be trying to communicate, and how you can respond in a helpful way.
- [Sunday Church School Directors:] Provide ongoing opportunities [for staff] to exchange information, share wins or concerns, and communicate regularly about how the Church can best serve the person and family.
- Have realistic expectations.
- Teach visually whenever possible.
- Remember, in the church school setting, patience, consistency, and caring will bring progress. Don’t be discouraged if your student prefers to sit and watch instead of participating. They will benefit just by being at Church and in your class!
- Be patient and respectful when someone with a communication disorder contributes in class. Give them time to respond. Through your example, help the class realize that he or she is an intelligent person who can share valuable insight and ideas.
- Create a “buddy system” as a strategy that can bless persons with disabilities, their families, and the buddy!
Because the subject of removing barriers at a parish-wide level is so broad, it can easily seem overwhelming. By following the RBE method, goals of all levels can be created and achieved, even when starting small. By educating the parish on existing barriers and how to remove them, then “everyone is equipped with the knowledge to ensure safe learning and a clear understanding of the ministry, why we are serving, and what it means to be in true fellowship with one another.” (page 101)
To order Removing Barriers: A Step-By-Step Guide to Making Your Parish More Disability Friendly and begin the improvement process within your parish, visit www.faithtree.org. In addition to this book, Faithtree Resources continues to work at creating other resources to help churches become more disability-friendly. To stay informed of their newest materials, visit www.faithtree.org or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Direct support from the Antiochian Orthodox Department of Christian Education (AODCE) is available by contacting Anna-Sarah Farha at email@example.com. Facebook groups organized by the AODCE for Sunday Church School Directors and Sunday Church School Teachers provide the opportunity to discuss removing barriers in Sunday Church School from an Orthodox Christian Education viewpoint in a supportive group forum: