Social Distractions in Worship for Those With Differing Abilities


Social distractions are a big obstacle to worship for many persons with disabilities. Discover the distractions and plan for EVERYONE to better experience the sacred flow and joy of worship.  This article will give you pictures of some of the  issues persons with disabilities have, and it will give suggestions for improving the worship climate. Include persons with disabilities on the worship committee, and, in addition, have the committee study these suggestions.  Most important, consult the end section, “What Can You Do?” to find out what YOU can do.

Social Distractions- Visible and Visible

Movements, directions and actions we take for granted are not always easy with persons who have differing abilities. To better understand how to plan, read about these distractions with a look toward how your worship flow might better accommodate them and enrich the rest of the congregation at the same time.

Wheezing or Shaking

  • Bernard worries that he has disturbed other worshippers by loud wheezing. Often he has to bring oxygen with him. Sometimes people stare or worse, glance sympathetically.
  • Louise can’t sit still, and her head shakes. She tries to sit on the back row in the sanctuary or an end seat in a class so she will not distract the people behind her.

Of the Group but Not In the Group

  • Barry needs a seat in a special location near a restroom. His friend who is undergoing chemotherapy must sit away from persons who could be infectious. This is also true for persons with autoimmune problems who easily become infected. They also have to be careful about dipping the communion wafer in the sacramental juice from a common source as infection might also lurk there.
  • Thoughtful ushers offered to serve communion where Charlie sits, but he says that true aloneness is sitting out in the aisle where people have to walk around him to get to the altar for communion. He also feels alone when he is singled out when the elements are brought to him. He says it is his problem not the fault of the thoughtful ushers.

Social Anxiety

  • For Ardice, who uses a cane, going to the altar for prayer or communion is a social problem. She asks herself, “What if I fall?” or, “What if I shake and spill the elements?” or, “If I kneel, can I get back up?” She wants to be a part of the group going to the front, but the time for her is tense.
  • Robert, who is in a wheelchair and cannot stand, also cannot see the words on the power point screen because people standing all around him block his view. And sometimes, although he has a bulletin with hymn and scripture listings, words to hymns have been changed or songs not in the hymnal are featured. He feels a part of the congregation only part of the time. He is learning to enjoy listening to the singing and litanies not printed in the bulletin.

Sing It When You Can and How You Can

  • Suzie needs a sign language interpreter for the service, including hymns, but she always wonders if interpreters are standing in the way for others. Her church offered real time captioning but she feared it would be distracting to the rest of the congregation. Across the aisle, her grandfather uses an amplification device provided by the church. He is embarrassed when it suddenly squeals, and he hopes people won’t stare.
  • Carl and Rita, both blind since birth, use the Braille hymnal provided by their church. Since the Braille book is heavy, thoughtful ushers put the selected loose-leaf hymns in a separate binder for them each week. Their discomfort comes when they must rush to keep up with the beat since reading Braille often takes as much as 40% longer to read than conventional words.
  • Wilcox has developmental mental lag and in singing, he does just that: lag. He finishes phrases after the congregation has moved on to the next line of music. Other persons with cognitive impairments often read slower, thus on litanies they are behind. A congregation that knows these persons by names and values them sends love by ignoring the distraction and waiting patiently, and leaders sometimes slow down a bit in the speed with which they lead prayers and litanies and allowing time to find a page or read it.

Caregivers On Guard

  • Charlotte finds it hard to follow directions, so her husband helps her know when to stand or sit. Since her onset of Alzheimer’s, she is often doing the wrong thing that embarrasses her husband, but they still attend church. Their congregation welcomes them and ignores missteps.
  • Single father Alan thirsts for God’s word, but is always apprehensive because he brings his twelve-year old daughter with autism. She becomes restless and makes noises. People stare and shake their heads.

Making Quiet Noise

  • Sharon may have as many as four or five petit mal seizures during a worship service. Her head drops, and a small sound may escape her lips. She grew up in an accepting church, so she isn’t embarrassed.
  • Marilyn and several persons with diabetes at Grace Church may need food before the service ends. The act of raising blood sugar may be noisy and embarrassing as candy papers rustle and glucose tabs are often hard to open. Children sitting nearby want candy, and at that point Marilyn either laughs out loud or wishes the minister would just go ahead and pronounce the benediction.

Longing for Participation

  • Helen loves the Bible, reads it a lot, and longed to read the scripture for sanctuary worship, but she has social anxiety and also has difficulty with climbing steps. At first she was frightened when asked to read on Sunday morning until her Sunday school teacher thought of walking with Helen, helping her up the steps, and standing beside her while she read. Her gift to the congregation was met with a hushed awe as they realized that Helen could read, and had conquered her fear to do it.
  • Bill (24) has a beautiful tenor voice, and reads words, but he cannot read music. The church choir director recruited him, and other tenors helped him become comfortable singing with them. He is learning to read music. It is a gift exchange that has built Bill’s self esteem.
  • Mary Jane was recruited for a choir, but she found the choir loft inaccessible. The incident caused the church board to re-think their accessibility and come up with an accessibility plan for the entire church.


  1. Enlist persons with special needs who can make suggestions for improving the climate of worship. Consider their gifts as leaders.
  2. Look for opportunities to use persons with disabilities as ushers, liturgists, soloists, or assistants in any way.
  3. Worship leaders are creative. Use your creativity to enhance the worship experience for a person with disability issues. Amaze yourself.
  4. Develop a church wide attitude of affirmation that accepts differences and values the gifts of all people. See Raise Congregational Awareness and Speak Welcome.
  5. Train ushers so they can be comfortable with everyone. Use On Greeting Persons With Disabilities: Suggestion Manual for Ushers and Greeters.
  6. Do a checklist of disability equipment: large print bulletins, hearing devices, American sign language interpreters, designated seating for wheelchairs (not in the aisle), access to communion rail, Braille hymnal, large print Bibles, handicap parking near the sanctuary. Provide worship bulletins in a larger font for persons with vision impairment, and be sure to include the words to songs not found in hymnals. Providing equipment and services takes times, but it is the easiest part of accommodation.
  7. Do sanctuary children’s story on an accommodating floor level, and allow extra time for a child with a disability  to get there.  See Classroom Worship With Children With Disabilities for tips to make children’s worship more meaningful.
  8. Notice! Get to know individuals with disabilities, listen to their needs, tell them about accommodations, and, if necessary, help them learn how to accommodate so they can relax to worship. See Noticing Needs.
  9. If you are a person with a disability, and you have specific needs, ask for help. Talk to the pastor or worship committee.
  10. Designate wheelchair seating so that video presentations are visible to persons in wheelchairs.
  11. Review wording in hymns that is diminishing or wounding, and skip or alter the language or skip a verse.
  12. As a planner or presenter, be intentional in prayer and meditation regarding social issues that would prevent worship.




.How Can Our Worship Services Be More Welcoming of People With Disabilities?

That All May Worship: An Interfaith Welcome to People With Disabilities, produced by the National Organization on Disability, 910 16th Street, NW, Suite 600, Washington, DC 20006, 202/293-5960. Single copy $10.00. Special pricing for multiple copies.

On Greeting Persons With Disabilities, a suggestion manual for ushers and greeters,, Naomi Mitchum. Free download.

Welcoming  People with Disabilities: Do’s and Don’ts for Parish Ministers by Marilyn E. Bishop and Published by National Pastoral Life Center. This 16-page pamphlet is available from the National Pastoral Life Center, 299 Elizabeth St., New York, NY 10012-2806, 212-4431-7825. $1.00 pr bulk price.

Section on reinventing worship, Harps in the Willows, strengths for reinventing life, Naomi Mitchum.

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