By Linda Martin
As worship leaders and musicians, God has given us a medium to connect with him directly that transcends age, race, gender, socioeconomic status and even ability level: music. Whether it’s having Scripture from songs forever imprinted in our hearts or feeling the unmistakable presence of God during a worship experience, music touches persons with disabilities in much the same way it does people without disabilities. In fact, I dare suggest music may touch persons with disabilities in an even more profound way. When we lose one of our major senses, our body compensates by heightening the sensitivity of our other senses. Imagine the intensity and depth of sounds that a person who is blind might be able to hear; or the feeling of rhythmic vibrations guiding our worship along with the visual imagery of language through sign for a person who is deaf. Or, imagine never being concerned or held back by worry over what others might think about our raised hands and loud voice; but instead being free to engage in pure, uninhibited worship. Yes, I dare say, persons with disabilities might just experience worship through music in a more profound way than many of us will ever understand.
God doesn’t forget any of his children
As disciples entrusted by God to bring people into relationship with him through music, the charge then becomes ensuring persons with disabilities are not forgotten or left out. We know throughout the Bible that Jesus not only cared for and reached out to those with disabilities (He healed the blind, the sick, the lame) but he also entrusted persons with disabilities with great responsibilities.(Don’t forget that Moses had a speech impediment.)It should be our honor to include persons with special needs in our worship ministries as well.
Here are five key areas to consider when determining how to begin including people with disabilities into the worship ministry at your church:
1) Understand the Need
Until your church becomes a disability-friendly church, you will most likely not see many people with special needs attending regularly. While many mistake this for “we don’t have a need,” in actuality, it means the church is probably not currently equipped to meet their needs. According to the Center for Disease Control, approximately 20 percent of adults in the US have a disability (National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities, 2012). I am certain our congregations, unfortunately, do not reflect this statistic.
2) Structural Considerations
Check with your church to ensure the basic logistical needs are met for persons with disabilities. Are there wheelchair ramps? Is there ample handicap parking? Is deaf interpretation available during at least one service? Is there preferred seating in the sanctuary for people in wheelchairs or with visual impairments? Are we careful not to seat them directly in front of the speakers?
3) Maintain a Standard
Remember to have expectations—disability doesn’t mean inability! If Michel Petrucciani (an incredible jazz pianist with dwarfism) walked up and asked to be a pianist on your worship team, would you have given him an opportunity or discounted him based on his appearance? Many musical giants have overcome disability to impact the musical world, including Beethoven, Itzhak Perlman, and Ray Charles.
4) Find a Place
Disability impacts people in significantly different ways. While there are some amazing musical savants who have disabilities, find creative ways to involve those who may love the worship ministry but are not musically gifted. Their role may be as simple as ensuring the vocalists have water every Sunday morning, or helping to set up the microphones before service. Don’t discount how far even the smallest of duties will go in making a person with disabilities feel accepted and empowered.
5) Normalize It
As people with disabilities become more visible in your church, the fear of the unknown begins to diminish. It can be intimidating for people who have not had frequent interactions with persons with disabilities to know how to interact with someone who appears different than themselves. (“What can I say or not say?” “What if I offend them?” “Will they think I’m staring?” “What if they don’t understand me?”) The easiest way to solve this problem is to provide ample opportunities for your congregation to see and appreciate the uniqueness of the person with disabilities. What worship song isn’t enhanced by the lyricism of sign language on stage for everyone to see? Who isn’t touched by seeing a person with Down syndrome worshiping with arms lifted high?
For persons with disabilities to be embraced into the worship culture of our church, the church needs to ask itself some tough questions. Are we willing to invest in having a church that is prepared for and welcoming to people with disabilities? Will we take the time to learn the special needs of each individual and accommodate those needs as appropriate? Will we accept and embrace what looks different? Do we believe that persons with disabilities can be and desire to be a contributing member of our ministry? Jesus demonstrated his response to these questions throughout his ministry. Will we do the same?
Linda Martin, MME, MT-BC is a Board Certified Music Therapist specializing in school-age children with special needs. She also serves as the Autism Program Coordinator at the Autism Discovery Institute at Rady Children’s Hospital in San Diego, CA. She was an active member of the Rock Church worship ministry for several years and now leads the Rock Church special needs children’s ministry program. In addition, Linda is a vocalist with the San Diego based gospel group, Adrian Wells and Endless Worship. She is married to Lee ‘Zap’ Martin, an accomplished musician and gospel/jazz pianist.