8 Ways to Improve Accessibility and Inclusion for Senior Parishioners

The following is a guest post by Marie Villeza of ElderImpact.org.

A place of worship should be a place where everyone feels safe and included. Lack of accessibility is a problem for many churches, particularly for older members of the congregation and those with disabilities. There are several ways that churches may lack accessibility—it is not just the physical building. Below are eight tips to improve various types of accessibility and inclusion problems for senior parishioners.

Improving Access and Inclusion

1.) Churches need to include access for those who are deaf, deaf-blind, and hard of hearing. Most people in the deaf community who were born deaf or lost their hearing very early in life generally use American Sign Language (ASL) as their primary means of communication, with English as a second language. Some individuals who became deaf later in life use a kind of Signed English, while others speech read.

For someone who is hard of hearing, a variety of factors impact effective communication such as background noise, lighting, fatigue, residual hearing, and speechreading ability. Deaf and deafened individuals require visual communication, and an ASL interpreter should be provided. Those who are hard of hearing may use assistive listening devices or systems which are used to enhance residual hearing and also improve sound reception in a church.

For those who are deaf and hard of hearing, the church may offer print copies of the entire sermon and any other news topics announced. For individuals who are both deaf and blind, tactile interpretations are the best form of communication. These solutions for communication access are essential to help make every individual feel welcome at church.

2.) To improve accessibility and inclusion, your church may benefit from sponsoring a luncheon every month for older members of the church. Offer a meal and provide a speaker to discuss a topic of interest to your older members. Or you could make it a potluck and ask attendees to share various experiences that may inspire others. Having a special day every month with peers can make church members appear more approachable so that senior members feel welcomed and included.

3.) Churches that are already existing buildings do not have to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) or local building codes, provided there are no major construction projects or modifications happening. Church members may generally want to make accessibility changes, but the cost of those changes is a problem.

People in the church and community can become community advocates and work to raise funds to help correct these problems. Occupational therapists can evaluate the accessibility of the church and recommend solutions. Additionally, they can educate church and community members about options and cultivate an interest in making the church more inclusive for all.

4.) Accessibility for those who are disabled is not just physical but also social and spiritual. Beyond the physical barriers, there are attitudinal and communication barriers to be concerned with. The church community should become more accepting and understanding of individuals’ different needs and walks of life. Every individual wants to feel valued for who they are and what they can offer to the people of the church and the community.

5.) Technology plays an important role in the accessibility and inclusion of older adults in the church. There are times that seniors can’t make it to church due to illness, pain, or other reasons. If they want to be a part of the church, it is crucial to have an option for them. One of those options is a free conference call service. The service may also be recorded and sent to members unable to attend the live service via email. Video calling is another similar option. These give senior members of the church the ability to worship, even if homebound.

6.) People with environmental sensitivities also face accessibility barriers, although this issue is often overlooked. These problems include allergies or sensitivities to mold and/or chemical substances. For those with these allergies or sensitivities, it may be impossible to be in certain parts of the church. Enlist an environmental safety specialist to inspect the building for areas of concern and offer recommendations to rectify problems for the health of all members.

7.) Churches can prove to be an important part of the nutrition and overall health of their senior members by providing meals, exercise classes, and wellness opportunities. Something congregations may also consider is enlisting a volunteer nurse (perhaps a member of the church) to take blood pressures regularly and offer basic health education for ailing and aging members.

8.) Individuals who are blind, are partially sighted, or have low vision require both communication and physical access assistance. Printed materials are often used for newsletters, Bibles, and bulletins, which are often sent by email. Technology that offers text-to-speech conversions is a useful aid for translating these materials and ensuring that these members receive the same benefits and knowledge. Certain church materials may also be offered in large print and Braille for those who require it.

The Importance of Inclusion

Too many people do not feel included in our society. People should always feel included in their place of worship. It is important for us to create inclusive environments within the church by accommodating people’s different needs.

About the Author

Marie Villeza has always had a close relationship with her father. As he became older, Marie wanted to return the favor and ensure that her father could continue to learn and stay current with everything in the world. That’s how ElderImpact.org started. Marie created this site in hopes of keeping seniors, like her father, in touch with modern living through helpful, informative resources. When Marie isn’t hard at work, she likes spending time with her family, reading, and gardening.

(Image via Pixabay by ChorSpiegel)