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Strategies for Including the Disabled in Worship and Church Life

Because stroke is a leading cause of disability in adults today, every congregation has or will soon include stroke survivors. About a third of stroke survivors suffer some form of communication impairment, which led Peggy Goetz, a professor of communication arts and sciences at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, to conduct research into the experiences of stroke survivors in their church communities. She discovered that churches are very good at supporting and praying for stroke victims during the initial crisis and rehabilitation period, but are not very good at either providing ongoing support or identifying new ways stroke-limited members can continue to serve. 

“Many stroke survivors go through depression or experience difficult moments of uncontrolled emotion,” Dr. Goetz said in an interview posted to the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship website, a site devoted to promoting and supporting worship renewal in Christian faith communities. Survivors who were active in their church before the stroke have the greatest awareness of what their stroke has cost them in relation to their church. “Stroke survivors are often told, ‘God has kept you alive for a reason. He must have a special plan for you.’ But they aren’t often encouraged to look for those places of purpose in their church community,” she said. 

According to stroke survivors, ongoing support could mean simply spending time with them, whether it’s playing cards, going to the beach, eating together or meeting for coffee. Non-pressured situations make it easier for stroke survivors with speech impediments to communicate; periods right before and after church are not that kind of no-pressure setting. Faith communities that make a point of remembering that stroke survivors are still children of God seeking opportunities to serve and contribute can provide opportunities to do such things as make coffee, take prayer requests, help at food pantries and greet worshippers. 

Almost all stroke survivors said they value people who are positive, patient and good listeners. Also see our resource, “How Abilities and Disabilities Reveal God” for a broader exploration of the ways congregations can accept and fully embrace people with disabilities and read our feature article, “From Accessibility to Inclusion,” for more ideas on how faith communities are including people with disabilities in the ministry of the church.

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