Originally Published by Disability Ministries Committee of the United Methodist Church, Republished with Permission
1. Why should we celebrate Disability Awareness Sunday?
As United Methodists, “We recognize that God made all creation and saw that it was good. As a diverse people of God who bring special gifts and evidence of God’s grace to the unity of the Church and to society, we are called to be faithful to the example of Jesus’ ministry to [and with] all persons. Inclusiveness means openness, acceptance, and support that enables all persons to participate in the life of the Church, the community, and the world.” ¶140 (1) We believe that the church is not complete until everyone, with and without disabilities, is able to attend, belong, and participate fully.
The Book of Discipline (¶265) (1) states “Disability Awareness Sunday (2) shall be observed annually on a date to be determined by the annual conference. Disability Awareness Sunday calls the Church to celebrate the gifts and graces of persons with disabilities and calls the Church and society to full inclusion of persons with disabilities in the community.”
About one out of four persons lives with a disability. (3) Any of us may acquire a disability at any time, especially as we get older. People with disabilities are less likely than people without disabilities to attend church regularly because of inaccessible buildings, lack of transportation, or being made to feel unwelcome. (4) Disability Awareness Sunday helps change attitudes, priorities, and practices.
2. When should we celebrate Disability Awareness Sunday?
If your annual conference has not set a date, pick any date that works for your congregation. Popular times are mid-October, early November, or early February before Lent begins. You might target an observance such as Autism Acceptance Month (April), Mental Health Awareness Month (May) or Disability Employment Awareness Month (October) and utilize the many on-line resources available. Plan to celebrate annually with a different emphasis and theme each year.
3. Who should plan and lead our Disability Awareness Sunday celebration?
Your lay leaders and administrative chairpersons should articulate a vision and lead the congregation in celebrating the vision for inclusivity and awareness. Buy-in from a pastor is helpful, but a few committed people are all it takes to get something started. Members with disabilities and their families must be represented on the planning team. If your congregation has a Disability Ministries or Accessibility team, they should be involved.
Consider recruiting a community member who has a disability related to your theme and paying them as a consultant to help lead your event and to educate your congregation on current issues around disability justice. You might enlist a panel of youth and adults from different experiences with disabilities as paid presenters. Have children and adults with disabilities participate in all aspects of the service, serving as speakers, musicians, ushers, and liturgists. For instance, a Deaf person could sign the scripture, with the ASL interpreter providing voice interpretation to the congregation.
4. How should we prepare for Disability Awareness Sunday?
Take into account what the congregation and community already understand and what they need to learn. Set a goal. What long-term changes are you hoping for?
Complete an accessibility audit (5) to make sure your building and program will support the event. Involve the trustees and include persons with disabilities in this process. Find ways to improve your accessibility, e.g., rent a ramp to the chancel, borrow assisted listening devices (6), and hire an interpreter. If needed, hold the service outdoors or in the fellowship hall or other accessible space. Print bulletins in a larger, bolder font and remind parishioners to avoid wearing fragrances. If communion is offered, use gluten-free bread for everyone.
Advertise through community calendars. Offer transportation to persons who no longer drive as well as persons in nearby group homes or nursing homes.
5. What activities do we include?
It’s fine to start small and important to start somewhere! Typical Disability Awareness Sunday celebrations offer worship centered around God’s love and acceptance of all of us. Read a children’s time story that features a child or parent with a disability and presents disability as one aspect of diversity. Teach everyone a song or prayer in sign language. (6) Take an offering for the Disability Ministries Committee (DMC) Advance #3021054 (7) to support accessibility projects, and/or help fund an accessibility project for your congregation or community.
Offer an adult forum on a specific topic, e.g., mental health, Alzheimer’s, or resources for people with low vision. During Sunday School have the children meet people with disabilities who might demonstrate the equipment and techniques they use and talk about living with a disability.
Host a potluck if local COVID guidelines allow this. Encourage foods that everyone can enjoy, including healthy low-carb, low-sodium, vegan, and gluten-free options. Have members bring a copy of their recipe so others can check for foods they may be allergic to. Arrange for a speaker from the disability community.
You might plan a Disability Awareness Week with additional events. These could include a movie viewing and discussion (Crip Camp (8) is a great choice), a disability open mic event, or art shows by artists with disabilities. You could organize a service project such as building a wheelchair ramp for a local family – a local ramp-building ministry would appreciate the help! (9)
6. How do we select music and liturgy for our worship service?
Start with your theme and select hymns that reflect the message you want to convey. Pick liturgy and songs that mention diversity, unity, and serving together. See this list of hymns (10) from United Methodist resources. Consider classical music written by composers with disabilities for the offertory or introit. Include information about these composers in your bulletin. Do not use hymns that equate deafness or blindness with sin, or that speak of persons with disabilities as objects of charity who need to be fixed or ministered to. Check DMC resources on Ableism (11) to make sure that your music and liturgy selections are not sending the wrong message.
7. Are there resources to help us develop our Disability Awareness Sunday?
The Disability Ministries Committee (DMC) Worship webpage (12) includes litanies, hymn and scripture suggestions, sermon starters, and more.
The United Methodist Committee on Deaf and Hard of Hearing Ministries has Deaf Awareness Week Activities, bulletin inserts, and many other resources available for your use. (13)
To find out whether your annual conference disability ministries committee has set a date and has resources, speakers, or grants available, visit the Disability Committees page (16) which is organized by state.
The Baltimore-Washington Conference has a page of resources for Disability Awareness Sunday, including a liturgy and bulletin inserts. (17)
Community Life UMC in Gulf Breeze, FL shared a summary and photos of their 8-14-2019 service with the Florida Conference. (18)
The West Ohio Conference’s Disability Awareness Sunday page (19) has recorded video clips of calls to worship, music, and sermons that you are free to incorporate into your own worship services.
8. Is it a good idea to have a disability simulation as part of our event?
No! In the past, a way to raise awareness was for people to be assigned a disability for a day. It is not recommended because sitting in a wheelchair, being blindfolded, or wearing ear plugs do not give one a realistic sense of what living with a disability is like. Instead, simulations tend to make participants feel sorry for people with disabilities, or to minimize what those of us with disabilities go through daily. We do not gain empathy towards any other marginalized groups by mimicking them!
People with disabilities learn many strategies to carry out everyday tasks despite physical and social barriers. Instead of simulation, try pairing participants with people who have disabilities and have them accomplish a task together. (21) For instance, complete an accessibility audit with someone who uses a wheelchair or view your church website with a person who is blind and uses a screen reader.
9. What are ways to ensure on-going Disability Awareness Sundays?
Create evaluations so those who attend give you feedback and suggestions for next year’s Disability Awareness Sunday. Share the results with the church administrative council. This evaluation process will help build the expectation that this is an ongoing and essential part of your church’s vision and mission. Work with the finance committee and administrative council to designate a line item in your worship budget for Disability Awareness Sunday.
Over time, annual events begin to take on a life of their own. Themes emerge from experiences of the congregation and observations of the disability ministries team.
One year, a congregation selected the topic of autism after hearing members were blaming behavior of a child with autism on poor parenting. Coincidentally (or not!) this was scheduled prior to the pastor’s grandchild receiving an autism spectrum diagnosis. The child’s mother added her witness to the event. The church now has five participants who are on the spectrum and integrated into the life of the congregation!
10. What books will help us learn more about disability awareness and ministry with and by people with disabilities?
Carter, Eric, Including People with Disabilities in Faith Communities: A Guide for Service Providers, Families, & Congregations. Paul Brookes Publishing, 2007.
Holland, Rebecca L. The United Methodist Church and Disability: Essays and Practical Tips for Churches, Clergy, and People with Disabilities. 2019.
Johnson, Mary, ed., Disability Awareness: Do it Right! Tips, Techniques, & Handouts for a Successful Awareness Day. Advocado Press, 2006.
Ladau, Emily – Demystifying Disability: What to Know, What to Say, and How to be an Ally. Ten Speed Press, 2021.
Mitchum, Naomi – Every Child Can Bloom in the Inclusive Classroom. Ramps’nthings Press, 2015.
Newman, Barbara J., Autism and Your Church: Nurturing the Spiritual Growth of People with Autism Spectrum Disorders, Revised and Updated Version. Friendship Ministries, 2011.
Pinsky, Mark I. Amazing Gifts: Stories of Faith, Disability, and Inclusion. The Albin Institute, 2012.
Thornburgh, Ginny. That All May Worship: An Interfaith Welcome to People with Disabilities. National Organization on Disability, 2005. (23)
Yates, Leo, Jr. Deaf Ministries: Ministry Models for Expanding the Kingdom of God, 4th Ed., KDP Publishing, 2021.
Walker, Robert L., ed. Speaking Out: Gifts of Ministering Undeterred by Disabilities. CreateSpace, 2012.
Wong, Alice. Disability Visibility: 17 First Person Stories for Today (Adapted for Young Adults). Delacorte Press, 2021.