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Breaking Barriers to Accessibility in Ministry

Samuel Iorpuu (center, near scale) weighs cassava brought by participants in World Renew’s conservation agriculture project.

Everybody belongs; everybody serves.

This is a common refrain for Lindsay Wieland Capel, disability consultant for Thrive, the congregational support agency of the Christian Reformed Church.

Wieland Capel works alongside North American churches, ministries, and faith leaders to equip them to think and act in keeping with the biblical call regarding people with disabilities and to establish ministries with, for, and by people with disabilities and their families.

These values are echoed internationally by the team at World Renew, the CRCNA’s community development and disaster response agency.

Everybody belongs; everybody serves.

While the sentiment might seem easy to embrace, its implementation takes intentionality and a willingness to examine the barriers to access that exist in our systems, our architecture, our communication, and our attitudes.

Economic Accessibility

In central Nigeria, people living with disabilities are often overlooked. According to 31-year-old Samuel Iorpuu of the Mbangye community in the Benue State, he and others with a disability often feel like they are not counted, let alone seen or consulted in community development.

That’s why he was so excited to be participating in a conservation agriculture project through World Renew’s local partner, the Ecumenical Centre for Justice and Peace. Iorpuu received cassava seedlings along with training in conservation agriculture techniques such as composting and using organic fertilizer. This intensive training, which included practice demonstrations on working farms, boosted Iorpuu’s confidence as both a farmer and a small business owner.

After planting the cassava seedlings and implementing what he learned, Iorpuu is now looking forward to a bountiful harvest. He hopes to have a high enough yield to process extra cassava into garri (a local staple starch) or cassava flour.

Through ECJP, Iorpuu also participates in a Village Savings and Loan Association. VSLA members meet regularly to pool their savings. Once the savings pool is big enough, group members can take out low-interest loans to invest in their farms and small businesses, pay off debt, or make improvements to their homes. Iorpuu plans to take out a small loan to purchase even more cassava seedlings and use the harvest to produce garri for sale at the local markets.

Iorpuu’s participation in the agriculture project has helped his confidence to grow, and that confidence is extending to all areas of his life despite the challenges of living with a disability. His farm is producing cassava plants and also new hope for Iorpuu’s future.

Congregational Accessibility

In Hamilton, Ont., Wieland Capel consulted with a church community taking intentional actions toward inclusivity and accessibility. As more individuals with disabilities join their congregation, the congregation has realized the need to be more intentional in creating a welcoming environment for everyone. They discussed various aspects of their building, worship format, and classroom settings to identify areas for improvement and chart a path forward.

One of the first issues addressed was building access. Church members are considering installing a new ramp because the current one is too steep, making it challenging for individuals with mobility challenges to access the building. They are also looking into improving their elevator and installing push-button doors.

The church also has focused on inclusivity in classroom settings, and Thrive’s disability consultant provided the church with ideas on how to include everyone in their educational programs. This included adapting teaching methods, providing additional support, and fostering a sense of belonging for all children.

To further support their inclusivity efforts, Wieland Capel suggested a church disability audit to help identify areas where the church can improve its accessibility and inclusivity practices. She also recommended starting a book club to discuss Amy Kenny’s book My Body Is Not a Prayer Request. This book club would not only educate the congregation about disability and faith, but also foster empathy and understanding toward individuals with disabilities.

The church has embraced these suggestions and is actively considering the disability audit and the book club. These initiatives demonstrate their commitment to creating a more inclusive and welcoming community for everyone.

As the congregation continues on this journey, they are setting an example for other churches to follow. By being honest about the barriers to inclusivity and accessibility in their own building and programming, they are not only making their church more welcoming to individuals with disabilities but also enriching the overall community experience. Through small but meaningful changes, they are creating a more accessible environment that welcomes everyone.

Ministry Accessibility

Thrive employees also are taking a look at the organization’s ministry practices to develop an inclusive posture and accessible resources.

Wieland Capel recently began collaborating with Jill Benson, resource developer for the DWELL Sunday school curriculum, to enhance the accessibility of the materials for children with disabilities, ensuring that every aspect is designed to be accessible to all children.

Together Benson and Wieland Capel are reviewing how Bible stories are taught throughout the curriculum. Are there unintentional slants toward ableism in how some stories are told? How can they ensure that children with disabilities do not feel “othered” or excluded by Bible stories? They also examined DWELL’s language and narratives to ensure that they are inclusive and free from ableist biases. Additionally, they’re highlighting existing resources such as the late Barb Newman’s tips on Welcoming Children of All Abilities and Victoria White’s practical ideas from the Nurturing Belonging: Exploring Hospitality, Disability, and Theology event.

A key goal of this collaboration is to identify what training is needed to support DWELL leaders in the classroom as they seek to include all children, using training formats that ensure its accessibility for all participants and effectiveness in equipping leaders to provide the best possible support for children with disabilities in their educational programs.

Looking to the future, DWELL is also considering how they might adapt the curriculum in the long term to incorporate additional creative elements and suggestions to help leaders create a welcoming environment for all children. Benson and Wieland Capel recognize the importance of accommodating the varying needs of children in the classroom and are exploring new methods of teaching to achieve this.

Wieland Capel is also consulting with the Thrive staff who manage the ongoing Christian Parenting and Caregiving Initiative, a project working to support family faith formation, to ensure the processes within the initiative consider and include families affected by disability.

Our Shared Ministry

Everybody belongs, everybody serves is a call to action, urging us to examine the barriers that exist and actively work toward inclusivity and accessibility in all areas of congregational life and ministry. The CRCNA is expanding its imagination for what is possible and taking intentional steps toward being a more welcoming and accessible home for people with apparent and non-apparent disabilities alike.

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