Universal Design for Church Life

by George Bailey.

I have been interested in the concept of Universal Design since first encountering it when learning about Higher Education course design. The basic idea is that whereas, previously, design began with some supposed ‘normal’ person in mind and then adjusted things if necessary for other people (or too often, failed to adjust), instead everything should be designed with everyone in mind. Since appreciating this, I have aspired for the background colour of all my slides to be maximally helpful for as wide as possible a range of both visual and cognitive diversity – however, usually I just have to settle for a certain shade of cream. Universal Design is an intuitively sensible idea, but the challenges and complexities both of its development and its application defy simple analysis and undermine merely enthusiastic unsophisticated efforts, as illustrated by my inadequate struggles with cream…. or is it ivory?

These complexities are comprehensively uncovered by Aimi Hamraie in a book which explores the history of the concept from the mid to late twentieth century and then the various ways it has been appropriated into mainstream discourse in the USA.[i] Universal Design was originally intended to bring disabled designers to the fore not just of accessible design adjustments or ‘retro-fits’, but of better design for all from the outset. However, the appropriation of the concept for consumer markets has seen it repositioned to focus on the spectrum of (dis)ability which all people experience, and particularly to assist all with the challenges of aging. This has limited the scope for hearing the voice of people with disabilities and prejudiced design for wealthier and healthier sectors of the population who are more likely to experience longer periods of old age. The widely disseminated Principles of Universal Design (1997)[ii] do not even mention disability and advocates have claimed that ‘through the design of thoughtful environments – ones which anticipate and celebrate the diversity of human ability, age, and culture – we have the capacity to eliminate a person’s disability.’[iii] This attitude does not make it easy for the voice of people with disabilities, who continue to find themselves excluded by design solutions, to be heard and heeded. What might easily be accepted as ‘common sense’ can become oppressive and unjust.

We face similar issues when applying our theologies of disability and inclusion. Amos Yong has argued that not only should the church include people with disabilities, but following the logic of 1 Corinthians 12, they should be at the centre of our ministry: ‘the body of Christ and the fellowship of the Spirit are constituted by many different members, each with his or her own spiritual gifts; none of the members or their gifts are more or less valuable – and, if anything, those deemed less worthy of honour are more indispensable.’[iv] The church can easily accept as ‘common sense’ theology the call to be inclusive, but then fall short of critically exploring what that inclusivity might mean if taken more seriously. It would radically alter our life together and our self-understanding. ‘We’ would become a bigger and more complete concept than in the potentially divisive idea that ‘we are called to include others’. The church’s ministry and witness would look different if those on the edge were brought to the centre. Benjamin Conner poses the question in this way: ‘Do we acknowledge that people with disabilities are members of the body of Christ who enable a more credible witness in a world of people with differing abilities?’[v] Rather than resulting in a transformation of our witness by people with differing abilities, if applied in an incomplete or fractured way, ‘inclusivity’ can itself instead become oppressive and unjust. As a simple example, when the church sings ‘All are welcome’ (Singing the Faith 409), unless the questions of who is in the position of host offering the welcome, who is the stranger being welcomed, and why, are explored honestly, then the power imbalance between those two positions will not easily be addressed and the new community of the body of Christ cannot be realised.

These reflections on Universal Design and the challenges of transforming church community are relevant as churches plan for the easing of the lockdown. If we can resist simply reacting to circumstances and the impulse to try to return to what we knew before, then in many cases we are presented with opportunities to design church life in new shapes. The pandemic has opened new experiences of ability and disability as unexpected people and sectors of our communities have found their lives restricted and struck by tragedy. There is a new sharing of the experience of disconnection, loss and exclusion. At the same time, some people who were previously unable to connect to much of church life have found that through post, phone, email, Zoom, and so on, they are now more at the centre than usual. Some, who had been unlikely to visit a church building, are investigating our ministry online, and some find themselves the wrong side of a digital divide. How do we shape ourselves to witness to God’s kingdom of inclusive healing love? How do we truly listen to the voices we have previously struggled to include – and not just listen to them but bring them to the centre so that the body of Christ can be enabled to become a ‘more credible witness in a world of people with differing abilities’?

[i] Aimi Hamraie, Building Access: Universal Design and the Politics of Disability (University of Minnesota Press, 2017)

[ii] Ibid. p.224-5. As published by the Center for Universal Design, North Carolina State University

[iii] Ibid. p.223; citing Josh Safdie, quoted in Susan Szenasy, “Accessibility Watch: Q&A with Josh Safdie,” Metropolis magazine, February 2011.

[iv] Amos Yong, The Bible, Disability, and the Church: A New Vision of the People of God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011), p.116.

[v] Benjamin T. Conner, Disabling Mission: Enabling Witness (Downers Grove: Inter Varsity Press, 2018), p.60.

4 thoughts on “Universal Design for Church Life”

  1. Thank you George. The theme of a new church with mixed abilities is explored in a moving way in Morris West’s novel ‘The Clowns of God’ that I was encouraged to read by Donald Eadie 35 years ago. It helped me to see the way in which those with ability are the ones who cause others to be labelled as ‘disabled’. The ‘equality of difference’ of which Paul speaks in his epistles is sadly lacking in every sphere of society and the Church is the poorer for our common sense approach.


  2. Thank you for this enormously important insight. Too often solutions to the needs of people with disabilities (or differently-abled people) are imposed in a kind-hearted attempt to meet needs but without listening. When Singing the Faith was debated by Conference concern was expressed about the needs of people who are blind or partially sighted. I tried to argue that this was a complex issue that needed careful analysis and thought but Conference simply passed a resolution that the new hymn book must be made available in Braille and moved on to next business. All well intentioned – but only 7% of people in the UK who are registered blind or partially-sighted read Braille (RNIB – https://www.rnib.org.uk/professionals/knowledge-and-research-hub/research-reports/reading-and-braille-research). Too often we think we’ve ticked the ‘inclusiveness’ box and cheerily move on, leaving many people frustrated at our failure to listen.


  3. I’ll be more interested in a Universal design for Church Life when we’ve tackled the need for a Universal design for worshipping God. Aren’t we putting the cart before the horse here?


  4. Thank you for the comments.
    Graham – I looked up the novel. I read Conclave by Robert Harris recently and I look forward to another story which looks like it has similar themes. Well… there’s a trilogy! May take me some time 🙂 Thank you.
    Peter – thank you for that perspective. I agree – the implications of taking action to include people are significant and so we often avoid them, but our witness to the love of Christ is weaker for it.
    Yvonne – I think we may be at cross purposes. By ‘church life’ I mean the whole life of the church, as summed up by the Methodist Our Calling statement – Worship, Caring and Learning, Service and Evangelism. I think there is confusion over the term because of the way some churches have had ‘church life committees’ by which they mean ‘social life’. I very much had worship in primary focus when writing this article.


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