Photo of Disability and the Church workshop presenters
Back row (left to right): Adele Halliday, facilitator, and Sharon Ballantyne, presenter and intercultural observer at GC43. Front row (left to right): presenters Sharon Alysworth, Tracy Odell, and Kathleen James-Cavan. Photo: The United Church of Canada

Addressing Disability Concerns a Top Priority for Church

Compassionately acknowledging the needs of people living with disabilities and welcoming them into communities of faith are pressing issues for the church today. This issue was explored in a GC43 Festival of Faith workshop, Disability and the Church: Re-imagining Being Together.

The workshop featured four presenters who live with physical disabilities: Sharon Aylsworth, a Toronto Commissioner from Kingston Road United; Sharon Ballantyne, a GC43 intercultural observer and minister at Dunsford United in Ontario; church disability advocate Kathleen James-Cavan from Saskatchewan; and Tracy Odell, who chairs the worship and community committee and is secretary for the church council at Knob Hill United Church in Toronto. Adele Halliday, team leader for Discipleship and Witness with the General Council Office, led the workshop.

“There are a lot of people like me who live with disability and want to be part of the church, and it is not always easy,” says Aylsworth. “The church cannot have my abilities (time, voice, ideas, and talent) without meeting my disability needs. We need to be ready to meet all the needs of new people who join us, and have a positive attitude when making changes.”

Today, an estimated 4 million Canadians identify as having a visible or an invisible disability. The issue is more pronounced in the church, which has an aging population. Workshop presenters said the GC43 theme, “Risking Faith, Daring Hope,” dovetails perfectly with the work the church needs to do in collaboration with people who live with disabilities—another form of righting relationships with people who feel marginalized or excluded from the work of the church.

Welcoming people with disabilities gives churches across Canada the opportunity to serve a larger purpose and evolve into community hubs and social enterprises that meet diverse social needs in their neighbourhoods and regions.

A great example of this transformation is Tottenham United in Ontario. Cassie Vermeer-Korittko, a first-time Toronto Commissioner from that church who is discerning her call to ministry, attended the workshop. She told participants that Tottenham United received approval from its presbytery to funnel all funds from its manse into an outreach initiative that focuses largely on supporting people who live with mental illness, an often-overlooked disability. Tottenham United’s program will offer services such as affordable counselling. One of the big bonuses, says Vermeer-Korittko, is that through embracing disabilities, the church is now a vibrant community hub that is busy all week.

Tips for affirming disabilities

Churches tend to focus on large, perceived obstacles when striving to become disability-friendly, such as the need to install an elevator. But much smaller efforts can go a long way. For example, Odell can’t hold a hymn book due to reduced arm and hand strength. One church she attended installed a small flip-down desktop in a pew to assist her, while another church provided a table for her use.

Presenters also encourage churches to use a large font size that is easy to read in bulletins and on slides projected onto screens for worship services, as well as microphones with a headset as opposed to a lapel mic, which is usually less effective for hearing-impaired people.

Presenters offered other tips for communities of faith:

  • Consider whether your theological and biblical readings are intentionally inclusive of all people. If they are not, decide how they can be read and explored through a wider lens.
  • Rethink traditional and planned activities using a disability lens. For example, consider how people in wheelchairs may participate in dancing, or ask a visually impaired person to describe their experience of an outing or meeting to others who are present.
  • “Ask people in the church and community with disabilities what would make them more involved in the church,” advise presenters.

In addition, the General Council Office has resources that everyone can use, says Halliday. Search for “disability worship resources” on Get involved with the Disability Ministries Facebook group, and sign up for the Intercultural Ministries News e-newsletter, which Halliday says always includes some content on disabilities.

She adds that people can watch the United Church website for more resources and information on how the church is addressing mental health, as well as an upcoming United in Learning webinar series, Disabilities in the Church, that Halliday will be moderating. The webinars begin in early October and continue to March 2019—watch for the dates and times.