Accessible Churches? How About Accessible Sermons?

With all this talk about accessible churches, I’ve been thinking lately about accessible sermons, and what that means to me.

An accessible sermon means different things to different people, but I think what it comes down to is that an accessible sermon is one you can understand, follow, and draw your own conclusions from.  It does not mean that you particularly like the sermon or that you found it spiritually uplifting – it simply means that you knew what was going on the entire time.

Sadly, for me, this event is so rare that I am always sure to comment about it to the speaker afterwards.  “I could understand the entire thing” is a huge compliment from me to a minister.

This is not because I am uneducated.  Although there is nothing wrong with not having any degrees at all, as it happens, I have a graduate degree, and in subjects like sociology, I am capable of reading and writing at a graduate level. I read a great deal, as a matter of fact, and devour newspapers and other media on a regular basis.

I do, however, have a fairly severe non-verbal learning disability as well as Asperger’s syndrome.  This can make it harder for me to follow someone else’s train of thoughts.  It takes me a few extra seconds to understand things, and I can easily get stuck in a particular point and then be unable to catch up with where the sermon is going.  Understanding a sermon is, for me, very difficult work.  I do not understand the majority of non-verbal communication, either, so where most people can fill in their gaps of understanding by reading body language, I cannot.

Add to this the fact that I, like many people with disabilities, was tracked to the lowest denominator up through my high school years.  The basic fact is that when a class moves at a slower pace, you miss out on things.  You don’t make it to the Cold War in history class.  You read three books a year, not five or seven, in English.  It took me an extra year to learn algebra, and so I never got to the basics of trigonometry or physics.

People with physical disabilities often have this happen, too, because when you are trying to fit in occupational, physical and other therapy into the day, it often means that a foreign language or other ‘unnecessary’ academics are dropped.  I have no other way to explain it than to say that I have some really random gaps in my knowledge – and I went to a very elite public school.  These same types of gaps show in people who went to under-funded, over-crowded public schools.  Having a broad, deep knowledge base and assuming that others do as well is not just classist, it can also be racist and ableist as well.

So what can you, as a minister or a church leader, do to make sermons more accessible to people with disabilities? I can think of, off the top of my head, several strategies to try. Here they are:

  1.  Offer paper copies of the sermon, and try to stick what you’ve typed up.  Many people find it easier to follow along with a speaker if they also have the words in front of them.  Alternately, you could email it to them so they could follow along on their phone or tablet.
  2. Choose simpler words.  Many Unitarian Univeralists see their academic mindset as a point of pride, but if you’re using many multi-syllabic words when a more unpretentious word would do, you’re not only showing your elitism, you’re doing a disservice to many in the congregation who do not know the meaning of the word.  When the whole point of a section is that such-and-such is refractory, and someone listening hasn’t the slightest idea what refractory means, you have missed the opportunity to engage them in the sermon.
  3. Explain terms or words that may be unfamiliar to people. Instead of saying ‘the grand jury’, say ‘The Grand jury, which is a group of regular jurors who decide if a case is going to trial.’  It costs you just a few seconds, but will make what you are saying much more accessible to people who speak English as a second language, to children, to those with learning disabilities and to those with knowledge gaps.
  4. Try not to use so many metaphors or sarcasm. I know, I know – I’m killing you here! – but many people, especially those on the autism spectrum, do not grasp metaphors and may be genuinely worried for your health and safety should you use a term like that above. If you’re speaking about the elephant in the room and you see somebody looking around for the elephant, cut to the chase and try saying it in plainer English.
  5. Keep it short.  Imagine that you are working as hard as some people do to understand a sermon, and think about how long you can keep that up. I, myself, am capable of paying full attention to a sermon for fifteen minutes, and anything past twenty I give up entirely on.
  6. Eliminate background music and most distractions.  I know that it would go against UU principles to exclude coughers and crying babies, but do place signs at the sanctuary doors urging people to not enter during the sermon, remind people during announcements to turn their phone on silent, and speak into the microphone, clearly, without any background music.  People with hearing loss as well as those with other disabilities will not be able to understand most or anything of what you are saying over background music, no matter how lovely it is.

I must tell you that I’m fairly certain that I missed the point of the sermon given at my church today – and most Sundays.  But I’m not after the point, I’m after understanding.  And if by understanding me, more people can understand you, then maybe there’s hope for commUUnication after all.

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