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Awareness is the first step in making the church fully inclusive

Awareness is the first step in making the church fully inclusive


If you’re fortunate enough to enjoy 20-20 vision and perfect hearing, you just completed your 10th marathon, and your doctor says he or she wishes everyone was in shape the way you are, congratulations.

However, the odds are good that not everyone in your congregation fits that description. So, as you look around your church sanctuary next Sunday, use fresh eyes.

Is that senior citizen struggling to settle into a seat? Does that person in the wheelchair know about your church’s handicap-accessible restrooms and where to find them? Is a gluten-free alternative available for communion today in case someone has a food allergy?

Was there a greeter out front near the accessible parking spaces in case someone needed extra help? Do some members struggle to hear clearly during the sermon?

Does your church have a light show during songs? If so, it would be prudent to announce that before the service begins in case anyone has autism.

“The most important thing is understanding that disabled doesn’t mean less-than,” Rev. Melissa Pisco of Celebration United Methodist Church in Gainesville said.

The playground at Celebration UMC in Gainesville is a safe, inclusive place.

She is the chair of the Disability Ministry Team for The Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church. The eight-person team meets monthly to discuss accessibility issues and raise awareness about how small changes can make a great difference.

“I have a 14-year-old disabled son,” she said. “Before he was born, a disability ministry was the farthest thing from my mind. What I found, though, even in a church setting, it was difficult to leave my son. People didn’t know how to care for him.

“So, I focused on working to create safe spaces.”

She contacted Rev. Dr. Sharon Austin, the Conference Director of Connectional and Justice Ministries.

“She said there was no team in place, and I said, OK, we need one. She agreed. I started with my personal story and built from there.”

That led to the “Let Them Come,” a handicapable playground open to the community on church property. It includes special swings for children in wheelchairs or those with bone or muscle problems. But it was intentionally built to be available for all children, including those without disabilities.

Want to know more about this?

Contact your district superintendent or reach out to Rev. Melissa Pisco at

“Children of all abilities could play side by side — in the same space,” she said. “Every single piece of equipment is wheelchair-accessible, side-by-side technology.

"The picnic tables have cutouts so people with wheelchairs don’t have to sit at the end. And it’s important because statistically we know a lot of families with disabled children won’t come to church because they don’t believe there are accommodations for them.”

The playground cost about $80,000 to build, paid for by donations from church members and fund-raising in the community.

“It’s not cheap,” Rev. Pisco said.

Stop. Right. There.

If you’re thinking, well, that’s great for that church in Gainesville, but my congregation can’t take on an expensive project like that because we don’t have the cash, don’t tune out.

“Whenever this topic comes up, the first thing I hear about is money,” said Rev. Pam DeDea of Temple United Methodist in Lakeland. “It makes my red hair stand on end. This should be an extremely large issue for all churches.”

In July, she and Betsie Hughes will assume the roles of co-chairs of the Disability Ministries Team as Rev. Pisco steps down from the leadership position.

There is a myriad number of ways to make your church more inclusive for those with special needs without breaking the bank.

It just takes awareness of things that may seem unimportant to you but could be impediments to someone else.

“It can be something as simple as making the fonts larger on slides,” Hughes said. "Is the type large enough so that someone with a visual issue can read them? And there is someone in every congregation that needs accommodating, whether it’s a physical need or a visual one. It doesn’t have to cost $25,000 to make others feel included.

“In my experience as a disabled woman, when you mention disability, it can become an excuse to exclude.”

The first step in addressing issues is simple: assemble a team and ask questions. You might be surprised at what matters to others.

“How many of our old churches put their handicapped entrance in the back,” Rev. Pisco said. “A woman in a wheelchair said that going in through a separate door from everyone else made her feel like a second-class citizen.

“I want to give people the benefit of the doubt on these issues because they don’t know what they don’t know.”

Changing the entryway into that church was an easy fix that showed inclusion. Many more small solutions can lead to surprisingly large results. And if it helps, ministry team members are happy to offer free training for churches who ask.

“We need education, education, and education for our churches to allay fears,” Rev. DeDea said. “We need to spread the word.”

Joe Henderson is the News Content Editor for

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