Your faith community is most likely a welcoming one and wants to be inclusive of people with disabilities and of other individuals who may feel under-represented. You may already do things to make people with disabilities feel at home in your community. That said, your community may also unwittingly exclude people with disabilities, because many traditions and environments have been designed without considering the needs of people with disabilities. In the past, this exclusion was accepted by most and not questioned. Today, however, we know better but can still be exclusive because we have not fully integrated inclusive thinking into the design of our traditions, activities, and spaces.
1- Strategies for Shifting Attitudes & Promoting Active Participation
You can begin by actively questioning and thinking about welcoming behaviour:
- How do you demonstrate openness at the core of your faith community?
- What are your current beliefs about welcoming?
- Who is not represented or unable to participate?
Welcoming goes beyond the invitation, and includes making sure that you find out about the needs of individuals with disabilities to participate and then to engage in a way that meets these needs.
Just Ask. Just Listen.
Inclusive thinking means changing habits and behaviours. Your community may need to consciously bring inclusive thinking into all activities before these inclusive habits are developed. Getting to know what you need to think about to be inclusive can be easier than you expect. We recommend as a first strategy a very simple approach:
Just ask. Just listen
Ask people with disabilities, “How can we be more welcoming? How can we be more inclusive?” Listening carefully to their response can help create a shift in how you think about inclusion. Sometimes we don’t ask because we feel unsure of how to interact with someone with a disability and do not want to be offensive.
Interacting with People with Disabilities
People with disabilities want to participate as volunteers in activities and on committees at places of worship. Here are some tips to make it happen.
Check the resource section for tips on interacting with people with disabilities, or follow this link to a chapter from Just Ask: Integrating Accessibility Throughout Design (http://uiaccess.com/accessucd/interact.html).
Accessibility does not equal inclusion. To be included in a community means to have opportunities to actively participate and make contributions to the community.
Welcome People into Active Participation
Welcoming also means enabling participation in all aspects of your community so that individuals know that they are able to engage.
Begin by advertising that you are looking for candidates of all abilities in media/locations (virtual and physical) that are frequented by people with disabilities in your community.
- Use diverse imagery within your advertising and media materials, such as those at photoability.net (a for-fee database of stock photos of people with disabilities) or at other image houses online.
- Advertise! Make it known that you have flexible ways to lead and volunteer for the community (e.g., online from home, volunteer with a buddy or partner, single task volunteering, and regularly scheduled volunteering).
Set Up Inclusive Training and Meetings
- Take advantage of the flexibility of electronic text (it is easily read aloud by a screen reader, enlarged, converted to Braille, adjusted for colour and contrast, as well as shared) and provide training materials and information in accessible digital formats.
- Take advantage of freely available and inexpensive audio and video conferencing solutions to enable remote participation in training activities, meetings, and volunteer tasks.
- Use plain language in training materials.
Create Tasks in an Inclusive Manner
- Have flexible tasks so that they can be tailored to fit different people’s skills and be shared. For example, an individual who is blind could teach a skill to a group of children with the help of a sighted person to manage physical supervision.
- Consider what tasks or parts of tasks can be carried out from their homes.
- Divide tasks into smaller sub-tasks/requirements so that you can better match each individual to available tasks.
Maintaining Participation of People with Disabilities in Your Community
- Seek to have people with disabilities represented at all levels of your community. Who is on your board? Who is volunteering on the front line?
- Develop policies and procedures that support inclusion, diversity, and accessibility through the inclusion committee.
- Set continual goals for inclusion and evaluate success of meeting inclusion goals and supporting diversity.
- Find and fix barriers to participation of people with disabilities.
- Have all volunteers complete an exit interview to learn more about the volunteer experience.
- Ask potential leaders and volunteers what they would like to do for your community organization, the skills they would like to put to use, and what their goals are in working with you.
- Focus on what people are able to do and maximize these opportunities by reassigning or redesigning tasks or parts of tasks that have barriers or are more difficult to accomplish.
- Allow people to identify what they are good at and what they would like to do, rather than create a prescriptive role. This will create an opportunity for the person with a disability to tell you how they would best fit into the organization.
- When possible, create roles with flexible timelines or opportunities to participate remotely or with a support worker. Make the availability of these flexible roles known to volunteers.
- Pay attention to travel and time constraints so someone who struggles to get around or who has to manage other commitments (such as booking attendants or medical appointments) will be able to participate in your community.
Have You Tried These Things?
- Set aside a time to discuss welcoming at a regular meeting.
- Discuss who the most welcoming people are in your community and what they do.
- Listen to the voices and needs of people with disabilities in your community.
- Identify and remove barriers to being welcoming and participation.
- Offer opportunities for people to volunteer in groups or pairs.
- Offer flexible time commitments and/or partnering arrangements that will enable individuals with episodic disabilities to volunteer.
- Offer transportation (e.g., carpool or shuttle) for those who do not drive.
- Ask people what you can do to support their commitment.
- Provide access to refreshments, if applicable.
- Provide an accessible space to secure belongings.
- Ask people with disabilities to volunteer and lead in the different areas of your community.
- We as a community understand the concept of welcoming.
- We see the ways that all of us have a level of responsibility in ensuring accessibility.
- We have established an Inclusion Committee.
- We have included people with disabilities in committees, as well as in praying, singing, dancing, music, speaking, and preaching in worship services.
- We have provided support and resources for people with disabilities to actively participate in the community.
- The tasks needed to be completed are tailored to each person’s abilities and areas of interest.
- We set up and organize inclusive training workshops.
- We have reached out and asked how to remove barriers to inclusion, and devised creative solutions.
- We now have more items that are checked “yes” under Barriers of Attitudes on the Brief Accessibility Checklist.
2- Strategies for Improving Communications
Communication is a process of providing, sending, receiving, and understanding information. A person’s disability may affect the way that the person expresses, receives, or processes communication.
Do not make assumptions based on a person’s disability. What may be a very effective way of providing information for one person with a disability may not be for another. People with the same type of disability may communicate in different ways because of diverse skills or resources. For example, only a small percentage of people who are blind use Braille. Where possible, it is helpful to ask the person directly how to communicate with them.
How Can We Create Accessible Communication Material?
- Make sure all written and spoken materials used in worship practices, programs/activities, and advertisements are in plain language. Offer other formats (e.g., large print, audio, digital on a website, and Braille).
- Provide text alternatives for non-text content (e.g., captions for pictures).
- Provide captions and other alternatives for multimedia (e.g., audio description of pictures and videos).
- Create content that can be presented in different ways, including by assistive technologies, such as screen readers for blind and low vision users, without losing meaning.
- Use different technology to spread your message in order to reach a wide variety of people across age and ability groups. Reach out through mobile, social media, and computer applications. Make all functionality available from a keyboard, if online.
- Make it easier for users to see and hear content.
- Give users enough time to read and use content.
- Do not use content that causes seizures (anything that flashes more than three times in any one-second period).
- Help users find what they are looking for.
- Make text readable and understandable. Use language that is to the point and gets your message across in the simplest way possible.
Tips for Creating Accessible Communication Materials
- When you create new information, think about what might help someone who has vision loss, hearing loss, or a learning disability understand it.
- For existing information, think about making it available in an accessible format; for example, using large print for someone with vision loss.
- Hire people with disabilities to create content for your community.
- Use clear fonts and contrasting colours for any documents you hand out or display.
- Incorporate various forms of visual, text, and audio elements into communication so that people can understand your message through the medium they feel most understandable.
- Offer to provide captioning and sign language interpretation to accommodate more members.
Have You Tried These Things?
- Provide ample notice of events to allow people to arrange for disability accommodations.
- Include an inclusion statement on all advertising.
- Collect information about disability accommodation needs through registration forms.
- Include contact information for disability accommodation requests in your advertising.
- Follow up on accommodation requests.
- Include international accessibility symbols in your advertising to indicate disability accommodations you can offer.
- Advertise in different formats for people with diverse ranges of ability, including (but not limited to) audio-recording, Braille, and/or web-based formats.
- In your meetings and services offer materials in large-print and digital formats (some members bring their tablets to your services).
- We offer information in different formats as needed in order to ensure that our message reaches people with a variety of disabilities.
- We create content with a diverse audience in mind.
- We have extra hard copies printed.
- The audio/visual controls are adjustable.
- We offer verbal descriptions of visual content.
- We are working on captioning some videos.
- We ensure that our message is delivered in a clear and understandable manner.
- We have provided an outlet for accessibility feedback after presentations in order to further improve.
- We mix up the ways we deliver our message to attract and engage all people in the community.
- We now have more items that are checked “yes” under Barriers of Communication on the Brief Accessibility Checklist.
3- Strategies for Making Buildings and Facilities Accessible
In both urban centres and rural communities, worship spaces act as important places for outreach, faith-based programming, and social and cultural activities. This makes worship spaces ideal for forming connections and socializing for people with disabilities. Inclusive design can be implemented in order to ensure the possibility for people with disabilities to make the most of their worship experiences.
Tips for Improving Access to Worship Spaces
The understanding of physical accessibility in Ontario faith communities needs to be looked at in a different way. Physical accessibility is often the most addressed aspect of the needs of the disability community, and yet many communities are still not fully accommodating. Physical accessibility does not end with ramps for wheelchair users. Access needs to include elements, such as
- spacious entryways
- clear signs to guide people through buildings
- unscented spaces
- adjustable lighting
- audio and visual aids
- inclusive seating (e.g. chairs available where they are not normally used, pews being shortened in various places so space for people using wheelchairs and strollers is available throughout the place of worship, not in a single area)
Tips for Accessible Buildings and Environments
- Consider how people are going to arrive at your space.
- Consider offering diverse transportation options to members with disabilities.
- Provide information about accessible parking.
- Provide information about wheelchair access.
- Check your outdoor and indoor pathways to be sure that they are free of barriers.
- If you have elevators, try to make them fully inclusive for diverse members.
- Provide inclusive, clear, high-contrast signage.
- Check the acoustics. It is important to provide minimal echo.
- Indicate the location of accessible bathrooms.
- Be sure that all electrical cables and cords are securely covered for safe crossover.
- Provide a quiet area with dim lighting.
Have You Tried These Things?
- Set up the space to be generous to users of wheelchairs and scooters.
- Provide accessible seating areas in the front, middle, and back.
- Reserve seating for people with disabilities and their companions to sit together.
- Included adjustable lighting in your worship space.
- Promote a fragrance‐free environment.
- We recognize the way physical space can support or remove a person’s feeling of welcome.
- We have considered the setup of the room and how people with disabilities will interact with the environment.
- Everybody in our community knows that by law, service animals are welcome in all public spaces, with few exceptions (e.g., food preparation areas), and can be dogs or other animals.
- We provided guidance to congregants on not interacting (e.g. distracting, petting, etc.) with service animals who are working (e.g., wearing a harness).
- We have an indoor or outdoor relief area for service animals and provide them with a water bowl.
- We accommodate transportation when possible (e.g., arrange carpool).
- We completed the accessibility checklist as a launching point into promoting a culture of accessibility.
- We have used and promoted technology and apps to report back on how well we are doing in terms of inclusion and accessibility.
- We now have more items that are checked “yes” under Architectural Barriers on the Brief Accessibility Checklist.