When should we celebrate Disability Awareness Sunday?
Disability Awareness Sunday gives an opportunity to celebrate our diversity as people with different abilities and gifts and to recognize the people who live with disability in our communities. Disability Awareness Sunday is the third Sunday of June, moveable to another date if it clashes with a major feast or other commemoration. Disability Awareness Sunday is ideally an annual observance, with a difference emphasis and theme each year.
How should we prepare for Disability Awareness Sunday?
Start with a planning committee that includes individuals and family members who experience disability. Assess the needs of your congregation and local community, and set a goal for your event. Be prepared to implement long-term changes based on the results of your event.
Once you pick a date, consider having an awareness week with additional events. This could include a movie night during the week, offering popcorn, drinks, childcare, and discussion of the film. Other activities could include Disability Open Mic events or art shows by groups including Disability Advocacy groups in your area. You could also organise a service project such as building a wheelchair ramp for a family in the community.
Complete an accessibility audit of your church and meeting spaces. Involve the vestry and include church member with disabilities. Find ways to make your church as accessible as possible.
For instance, rent a ramp to the sanctuary, hire an interpreter, hold the service outdoors or in an accessible part of the church, borrow assisted listening devices, print some of the service sheets in a larger or bolder font, and remind parishioners to avoid wearing fragrances. Have gluten-free wafers available.
In addition to your members who have disabilities, reach out into the community to invite other persons with disabilities to participate in worship services and educational events. Be creative in locating people through preschool programmes, deaf service centres, Foundation for the Blind, rehabilitation centres, community disability organisations, vocational counselling programs, etc. Place notices on social media and in the newspaper. Offer transport to people who no longer drive as well as any in nearby group homes or rest homes who wish to attend.
What activities do we include?
Typical activities start with a worship service themed around God’s love and acceptance of all of us. Read a story for the children’s time that features a child with a disability, or a sibling. Teach everyone a song in sign language. Take an offering for local disability support services or for an accessibility project for your congregation or community. Have children, youth and adults with disabilities participate in all aspects of the service, serving as musicians, ushers and speakers. For instance, you might have someone who is deaf sign the scripture and have the interpreter provide voice interpretation to the congregation.
You could arrange an adult educational forum on living with a disability or a similar topic. During the Sunday School time, you could offer the children a chance to meet people with disabilities, and to learn about equipment or techniques that they use to live with their impairments.
Finish with a potluck meal. Encourage people to bring foods that everyone can enjoy, including healthy options. Have members bring a copy of the recipes so others can check for foods they may be allergic to or write down a favourite. Plan a programme highlighting gifts of individuals with disabilities, or celebrate moments of inclusion in the life of the church with a quick Powerpoint.
How do we select music and liturgy for our worship service?
Start with a theme, choosing songs that mention diversity, unity and serving together. Consider music written by composers with disabilities for the offertory, introit, and other sections of their service. Include information about these composers in your bulletin.
Avoid hymns that equate deafness or blindness with sin, or that speak of persons with disabilities as objects of charity who need to be ministered to.
Why should we celebrate Disability Awareness Sunday?
Twenty four percent of the population live with a disability - and family members are affected. Fewer persons with disabilities attend church monthly than persons without disabilities.
Reasons may include inaccessible buildings and experiences of not being welcomed. There are documented cases of people with disabilities being asked to leave churches who perceive their needs as a nuisance. We are to love our neighbour as we love ourselves; anyone who doesn’t have a disability may acquire a disability at any time.
Is it a good idea to have a disability simulation as part of our event?
In the past, a way to raise awareness was for people to be given a disability for a day. This is not recommended. In limited situations, it could be instructive (i.e., illustrating the problems of a particular building design), but 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 minimise what those of us with disabilities go through daily. Would you teach what life is like as a person of colour by changing a participant’s skin colour, or do gender awareness by having someone dress as a person of the opposite sex?
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. For instance, complete an accessibility audit with someone who uses a wheelchair or view your church website with a person who uses a screen reader.
An exception to this guide is when a speaker who has a disability uses simulation of their disability with children and processes the experience with them afterwards. Children benefit from experiencing the challenge and seeing the person with a disability demonstrate skills dealing with similar challenges.
What are ways to ensure ongoing Disability Awareness?
The event needs a leader who spearheads the initial celebration and is involved on an ongoing basis. Use as many local resources as you can.
Have a different team member take the lead each year. For example, one year, a United Methodist congregation in the USA selected the theme of autism, after hearing church members were blaming the behaviour of a child with autism on ‘poor parenting’.
Leaders can practice and demonstrate the importance of involving people with disabilities by inviting them into the leadership, planning and implementation of Disability Awareness Sunday services.
(Adapted from the original FAQs prepared by United Methodist DisAbility Ministries 2013 (revised 2018).
You can find the original Disability Awareness Sunday FAQs in a Word file listed here.