Disability Etiquette and Hospitality Concerns
The suggestions below refer to opportunities for engaging with individuals with disabilities that may occur during Mass or other areas in parish life. Some basic premises to follow are: assume the ability to participate in some way; a preference for some level of autonomy, rather than be waited on; and that helpful supports for each person will be different, even among people with the same disability.
Use these suggestions to initiate interaction when possible. There is nothing worse than being left out and ignored. While the suggestions below are grouped according to disability, it is important to remember this. If you know the person has a disability, based on suggestions below, you can ask how you might help.
Sometimes, though, the disability isn’t obvious. If you observe behavior that you don’t understand, it’s good to remain aware for possible supports and be nonjudgmental. What may appear to be willful, disruptive behavior may be due to stress in the family (divorce, unemployment, etc) or a “hidden” disability or condition, such as autism or a mental health concern.
- Gestures often convey acceptance. Sit next to a person with a disability, but respect boundaries.
- If a person has a seizure, you cannot do anything to stop it. Be sure head is protected.
- As an usher or greeter, please respect person’s needs and requests whenever possible.
- Assume ability rather than inability. Respectfully ask if assistance is needed if you have doubts.
- A person who may appear drunk or sick may have a disability or medical emergency.
- Ask persons with disabilities to serve in ministry roles based on their abilities and interests.
- Usher, Minister of Communion, Greeter, group facilitator, social outreach or just some possibilities.
- Be open to new roles based on interests and abilities missing in the parish.
- Greet the person in ordinary way, with age-appropriate language, as you would with anyone.
- Repeat information about yourself if necessary.
- Rephrase, rather than repeat the sentences the person didn’t understand.
- Treat people equally.
- Even if a person doesn’t read, offer reading materials.
- Let the person know you don’t understand them rather than pretending you do.
- Ask the person to repeat what they said f you can’t understand.
- Wait for the person to finish; don’t finish their sentences.
- Wait for the person to finish, and then restate to be sure you understand.
- Suggest another way of facilitating communication if needed.
- Create a space available that parishioners can go to de-escalate challenging behaviors.
- If the individual is with a parent or other adult, wait before offering assistance and if you do, first ASK if it is wanted. Supportive strategies for challenging behavior can take time before effecting change. However well intended your offer, it may be intrusive and counterproductive.
- Ask how you can help, find out if there is a support person who can be sent for.
- Ask what will make them most comfortable and respect these supports to the maximum extent possible.
- If attempts at conversation fail, wait for rational moments. Do not force conversation or argue.
- Be sure to greet the person.
- Give your name and ask theirs but respect boundaries.
- Offer to sit with or near, but respect wishes to be alone.
- Ask about preferred location for seating.
- Ask permission to push or touch a person’s wheelchair first.
- Individuals with canes or crutches may or may not prefer to use a ramp rather than stairs. Ask.
- Individuals with canes and crutches need their arms to balance themselves, so do not grab their arms.
- Speak to the person in the wheelchair and not to the person that may be accompanying them.
- Be eye level, if possible, with persons in wheel chairs when talking to them.
- Always ask before offering help. Don’t be offended if the person says no.
- Never pat anyone on the head.
- A person with a respiratory or heart condition may have difficulty walking long distances. Offer a place to rest before ushering to a seat.
- Prearrange tour of church with audio description.
- Identify yourself and your role (I am the greeter/usher).
- Ask person “Would you like assistance?” Offer your arm.
- Describe the scene if the person is moving through an unfamiliar space alone. Keep your voice at a volume the individual can hear, rather than for people in the general area.
- Walk on the opposite side of a service dog.
- Don’t touch a person’s cane or guide dog.
- Give verbal cues that are specific such as, “in front of you is a trash can,” instead of something vague like, “watch out.”
- Guide an individual’s hand to a banister or the back of a chair to help direct to a stairway or seat AFTER asking permission to do so.
- Inform a person who is blind and attends church regularly of any physical changes.
- Offer bulletins in large print or Braille and large-print prayer books and hymnals.
- Establish before Mass IF a person would like accommodations for Communion (e.g., Eucharistic Minister to come to them, a sighted guide, etc). Don’t assume a person using a wheelchair wants Communion brought to them.
Deaf/Hard of Hearing (HOH)
- Individuals who are Deaf typically prefer what is known as identity-first language rather than person-first language. They consider Deafness to be a culture whose language is sign language, American Sign Language (ASL) in the US.
- Using someone who knows sign-language is not an adequate replacement for an interpreter.
- Determine whether the individual prefers to use sign language, writing, gesturing, speaking or a combination of all to communicate.
- To get the attention of someone who is deaf/HOH you can tap him/her on the shoulder, wave your hand or flicker the lights.
- When speaking to a person who is wearing a hearing aid, use normal volume, speaking clearly. If you shout, your words will be more distorted. Move closer to the individual if they have trouble hearing you.
- Face the person directly when speaking, and do not obscure your mouth when communicating.
- When speaking through a sign-language interpreter, look directly at the person who is Deaf, and maintain eye contact, talking directly to him/her.
- Background noises are a problem for people who are HOH. You may need to turn off radios and air conditioners.
- Offer assisted listening devices if available (infrared, hearing loop, FM); have a note pad and pen available.
 With gratitude to the Office of Pastoral Care for Persons with Disabilities Archdiocese of Philadelphia, with some edits, used with permission.