There is a saying when it comes to people with disabilities and making accommodations for them.“Nothing about us without us.” What this means is when something in society causes a person with a disability to be excluded, those people trying to make the accommodations should consider and even consult the people with the disabilities themselves about how to best change the environment. Our Children’s Pastors did this 10 years ago when Annie & Audrey were outgrowing the nursery and has also happened on other occasions over the years as well. We are very appreciative of this. Sometimes there may be a need for areas to be reserved for practical reasons but I want to suggest that church leaders take a more individualized approach to this practice and consider the implications of the “reserved for” sign.
Let me explain why, “reserved for” signs are sometimes a good idea and sometimes not. In the case of people in wheelchairs needing a place at the after-service-coffee-time tables, placing a “reserved for…”, sign on the table will serve one purpose but may also cause something else to happen, which isn’t the goal of any church I’m sure. People with disabilities and their families (like us) are not looking for special treatment but for a place for natural friendships to develop, to be part of the fabric of the church, a place of belonging, and even a place to serve. I believe a simple coffee time after church is one thing that can foster such things. However, by placing a “reserved for” sign on the table, other people may shy away from the people with disabilities. This is exactly the opposite of what I want for my family. We love it that people who don’t know us are feeling comfortable to sit for awhile and get to know us.
I know for us, (and I’m sure this is the case for other families affected by disability), getting out to church on a Sunday morning is a big feat. We are well accommodated in the church sanctuary and placing a simple wheelchair sign (reserved for…) on the empty spots where people with mobility impairments sit, as well as the companion seat beside them, would be a great idea. People with mobility impairments or us-with other impairments, (we prefer the back row for easy exit and to allow movement), are then able to worship alongside our church family or excuse ourselves and watch the service in the nearby boardroom if need be. A flat screen TV was added to that room and a live feed provided as well. It’s an excellent option for us.
So after the service, to actually connect with people, we can easily make our way into the Welcome Hall for coffee and a visit after service-maybe for an hour. It’s not a huge thing to most people who take for granted going to church, going to other people’s homes for coffee or dinner or small groups , or attending other church functions. But for those of us who don’t or can’t do those typical things easily, the after service coffee time is perfect and allows other people in the congregation to get to know us by spending a bit of time with us and our loved ones who have disabilities. By placing a, “reserved for” sign, we tell people to stay away, as so often they already do. We exclude non-disabled people from our circle. We become “other”, “different”, and even unapproachable. Again, not the goals of any church family. I’m sure you’ll agree that there are better options. By simply putting out a few more tables and chairs, other church family members will feel welcomed rather than pushed away. Any awkwardness suddenly disappears simply by arranging the environment in an inclusive way. Who knew coffee time was so scientific? :p Clearly I have an advantage, seeing as my heritage is Dutch and coffee is pretty much a food group all on it’s own, not to mention the atmosphere in which one drinks the coffee…gesellegheight. But that’s another story.