Hard as it is to believe, Advent is almost upon us, which means that the Christmas pageants are just around the corner. For many congregations, the Christmas pageant is an event that brings more visitors than any other, and making sure the experience is actually accessible to them can get put to the end of a very long list of to-dos. But accessibility is a human right, and careful planning can help churches develop accessibility plans that last far beyond a single event and let both visitors and members know that they are valued and welcome.
The first crucial aspect of accessibility to consider is physical accessibility. Though churches are exempt from the Americans with Disabilities Act, our gospel commitments call us to doing better than the minimum the law requires. Now is the time to make sure elevators and lifts are operational, ramps and curb cutouts are easily accessible, and our sanctuaries have space for wheelchairs and other assistive devices. In addition, as a physically disabled person, one thing I find amazingly helpful on many fronts is assigning greeters in the parking lot and at each door who know the layout of the church/campus and can assist visitors with getting accessibility needs met from the moment they arrive.
As we plan our pageants, it can be tempted to lean bigger, louder, flashier, increasing our stress levels each time. But when I invite congregations to think about what really matters to them about the Christmas experience, it's rarely fancy set design or custom-commissioned carols. Time and time again, what is desired is that it be low stress, full of wonder, and grounded in the biblical story. That can be done incredibly simply. And simplicity begets accessibility.
In the further interest of simplicity, I highly encourage congregations to consider going the no-rehearsal route. If our goal is Broadway-level productions, then going rehearsal-free is a recipe for disaster. But if our goal is accessibility, then going rehearsal-free means that we can create an experience where people can participate regardless of how busy they are, whether or not they have reliable transportation, how long they've been a member, etc.
Another piece that speaks to accessibility is making sure the pageant is accessible online, both because COVID-19 continues to be a massive concern and because, pandemic or not, people who can't be with us in person still deserve a role in God's gospel community. There are many ways to include online worshippers in the action, from assigning lines where everyone unmutes to inviting people to pre-record a scene.
The last aspect I encourage communities to consider is sensory accessibility. In our efforts to make our pageants continually bigger, better, and brighter, we can actually end up creating sensory overload that is challenging to many children and to many people who are neurodiverse (and frankly, most people can use a break from the constant noise and visual stimulation that is the holiday season!). Less is more when it comes to the sounds, sights, and overall sensory experiences that accompany this extraordinary story, with one notable exception: candlelight. While candlelit portions of Christmas pageants and services are beautiful and can contribute to creating that sense of wonder noted above, please make sure that 1) you use electronic candles or have enough helpers available to hold lit candles for people who cannot, whether that's because of age, ability, or simply having their hands full, and 2) you don't make the candlelit portions of worship the same portions where folks are expected to do a lot of reading.
Last but not least, truth in advertising is essential. It is not enough to say, “All are welcome.” If your pageant is upstairs and there is no lift/elevator, or if you have an elevator, but it is not large enough for a wheelchair, or your restrooms are strictly male or female, with no option for non-binary folks, then all are not welcome, and marginalized people usually much prefer hearing, “Hey, these are the barriers that exist and we would love to work with you to come up with solutions,” rather than being told they're welcome, and then arriving and realizing it's not true. While I long for a day where all churches abide by the ADA, offer braille and screen reader-accessible bulletins, have ASL interpreters present, provide low-sensory zones, etc., it is impossible for most churches to have these things in place by Christmas. But what all churches can do is make sure their website, social media, and print marketing all let it be known that “We are committed to becoming a more accessible community and would love to have you with us as we celebrate the miracle of Jesus' birth. Please feel free to contact us and discuss how we can meet your accessibility needs.” It is in this way that we can make welcome a verb, doing what is needed so that all people can experience the miracle that is Christ being born among us.