By Rev. Carla Christopher Wilson
Here are seven steps to make your congregation more welcoming and supportive for people with developmental disabilities when you are online.
“Rabbi,” his disciples asked him, “why was this man born blind? Was it because of his own sins or his parents’ sins?” “It was not because of his sins or his parents’ sins,” Jesus answered. “This happened so the power of God could be seen in him.” (John 9:2-4)
1) Have speakers use their voice to describe themselves, say their name and pronouns before speaking for the first time, have facilitators briefly read aloud or summarize slides or visuals and describe artwork, and describe the setting if relevant for those who are visually impaired.
2) Use subtitles or closed-captioning (Facebook and YouTube have automatic functions that do this, as do several web-based applications) on videos and slides of important information to support people who are deaf/hearing impaired.
3) Use person-first language. (Instead of saying “the disabled” say: people with a disability or people living with vision loss, etc.) Currently best-practice language includes use of the word deaf, autistic, and disabled but be aware this varies person-to-person and if you are unsure how someone wants to be referred to the best way to find out is just to ask.
4) Speak at a slightly slower than normal pace, speak clearly, do not whisper or mumble (or shout), and be sure to look directly into the camera when you speak. Remain age-appropriate and respectful of each person’s dignity but do all that you can to ensure participants are easy to understand.
5) While engagement best-practices in some digital spaces include using chat functions, polls, clicking external links, using multiple windows, or encouraging digital reactions, when working with individuals with disabilities it may be more helpful to frequently pause for questions and check-ins and allow more verbal interaction at frequent intervals. Avoid too much multi-tasking and complex technical actions.
6) Consider using pictures, motions, or other illustrations to enhance information that you are using words or print to describe. Particularly when making comparisons or describing something where a visual example can be shown, adding a more kinesthetic, familiar, or relatable component can be helpful.
7) Be flexible and willing to adapt your lesson, worship plan, or gathering goal. Listen to the voices of participants and center their needs in the space while maintaining a clear sense of goals and supportive structure. Trust and safety are vital for learning spaces and can be easily lost or damaged by an impatient or unresponsive facilitator. Share and show love and care, and you are likely to receive it back.
“But He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in vulnerability.” Therefore, I will most gladly boast all the more about my vulnerability, so that Christ’s power may reside in me.” (2 Corinthians 12:9)
For more information, or if you have additional questions or requests for support or resources, please visit the Lower Susquehanna Synod Justice Ministries “Disability Ministries” page at lss-elca.org. Our task force is here for support and assistance!
Assistant to the Bishop Pastor Carla Christopher Wilson coordinates ministries of social justice including racial, LGBTQIA+, immigration, hunger, and poverty; and serves as staff liaison to the following committees: Criminal Justice System Ministry, Global Mission, Toward Racial Justice, World Hunger and Synod Worship. She is also Associate Pastor of Faith Formation and Outreach at Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd in Lancaster.