How to design a house of prayer for all people? Universal Design and the Church: 3

We in ministry often under-appreciate the creative impact we have as “designers,” partly because we “regular folks” are so steeped in “standard design” – designing “to the norm” – that we don’t even see that it IS design.

Universal Design thinking suggests a different approach: designing with disability in mind. Instead of thinking what will be helpful for “most” people, what if we approached designing asking, “How can this be used/accessed by everyone… particularly those who can’t make use of the “regular” option?”

2017-10 IMG_9510IMG_9515 wheelchair trident disability indispensable.JPG
Luts’k, Ukraine. Beyond Suffering conference, October 2017. Image credit: Chris Malone for the image.

Right away we notice that we can’t answer this question without input from people with disabilities – specific design input – at the beginning stages of our ministry “design.” Implication #1: If, at the early stages of your ministry launch, you realize you don’t have access to input from anybody living with disability, you must broaden your social circle… because you need them at this phase. (Actually, being called “indispensable” by Paul, it’s safe to say that we need people with disabilities in our fellowships at every phase… so this process is teaching us some important things already!)

People with disabilities deal with a lot of tough stuff and often need and deserve help. But they also experience the world in a unique way. And those unique experiences can help us make and design churches and ministries that will be better for everyone – for people with and without disabilities.

OXO Good grips

Here’s what’s intriguing: when we look at how universal design works, we see that it’s about developing solutions for people with disabilities… But these solutions end up being “normalized,” embraced and loved by the mainstream, apart from having or not having a disability. Consider the case of the OXO potato peeler. It was originally designed for people with arthritis who could not make use of the “standard” peeler… but it was so comfortable, that everybody loved it. Electronics manufacturers used universal design to consider how Deaf persons could make better use of communication tech product. The output? Text messaging. Which, it seems, everyone loves. It doesn’t matter that the whole format started strictly to help “other” people do what “we” could already do (i.e., just communicate normally). The devices that were designed with Deaf folks in mind turned out to be devices that (you guessed it) were better for everyone.UD slide_6

So what’s our mindset as church planters and disciplemakers, particularly as “designers” of ministry spaces and environments? What if we designed for disability first –instead of designing to the norm? Might we find that, in the ministry sphere as well, when we design with disability in mind, we stumble upon solutions and approaches that are not only inclusive, but also are often better than what we come up with designing for the norm?

I think this could be a game-changer for local congregations. Instead of seeing the energy it takes to accommodate someone with a disability as a “cost” we can see it as something that, with God’s help, can be leveraged, molded and played with as a force for creativity and innovation. leverage

So let’s get to the payoff here. How does this universal design approach actually work? And what are the concrete implications for how we pursue church ministry and evangelistic outreach? Universal design simply means designing all products, buildings, and exterior spaces to be usable by all people to the greatest extent possible. It’s not a “design style,” but an orientation to design based on understanding of what disability actually is.

More specifically addressing the church, we’re not proposing (or even looking for) a “design style,” a way of “designing Church” that would be in some way optimal. We’re talking here about “orientation” to our function as designers: we want to be attentive, from before we begin, to how church spaces, buildings, gatherings, community interactions, programs (like curricula, etc.) can be designed to be usable by ALL PEOPLE to the greatest possible extent. And, from the start, we’re keeping in mind that disability is not a special condition of a few, that it is ordinary and affects most of us for at least some part of our lives. And grasping the reality that if a design {or a church} works well for people with disabilities, it will most likely work better for everyone.

Universal-AccessibilityWhat is really happening here is that we are reframing the question of what ‘normal’ is. “What’s the normal way to be mobile over a distance of a mile?” Is it to walk, drive one’s own car, take a taxi, ride a bike, use a wheelchair, roller skate, skate board, what? Recognizing that most people will experience some form of disability, either permanent or temporary, over the course of their lives, let’s just accept and expect it… and if we allow that to open our imaginations, to rethink and revision how we design our churches, disability wouldn’t seem so abnormal. And disability ministry would be a “normal” facet of the life of the body.access-stairs.jpg

Turning to the “design” of the church: Is there a normal way to worship God in community? A normal way that people, families, and communities are formed according to the image of Christ? A “normal” way to attend church, participate in the spiritual and social life of the community,,, to belong to and in the body? … to find and exercise gifts? Is it “normal” for people experiencing disability to NOT have “normal” means to access Christian community?

UD stairsIf our practice of “church” is mostly with “normal people like us,” we might need to be reminded that – just as users of appliances don’t come in a standard format – church attenders (and believers) don’t come in a “standard format” either. When we think or act as if “we” reflect such a “standard format,” we are slipping into ableism. Because we assume that the “normal” way these things happen in the Body is the way “we” do it. But our ‘standard format’ before God is universal: all of us bearing the Eternal’s image and likeness, this despite the reality that sin has alienated all and every one of us from ourselves, each other, God’s world, and God due to our sin.

Universal design in the church starts with “designing” our buildings, meetings, and communities around that universal common reality, asking not “How do we ‘most effectively reach’ most people?” but “What would a “house of prayer for all people in this community look like?”

( This post continues a series that began here.) It continues here.

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