Disability Workshop for Adults: Differences and Similarities Among Disabilities
Disability Workshop for Adults: Differences and Similarities Among Disabilities
Disability & Accessibility

Workshop Overview


Suggested for all congregants.


Recognizing the inherent worth and dignity of each other requires that we know people as they truly are.  When we misunderstand what makes us unique and the qualities we hold in common, we cannot fulfill the aspirations expressed in our Unitarian Universalist principles.

Prior to discussing specific “Differences and Similarities among Disabilities,” it is vital that individual congregants know the best and most appropriate ways of interacting positively with people who have various types of disabilities.  This awareness allows individuals to feel truly welcome and included in their congregations.  It benefits everyone to feel comfortable with one another and may limit awkwardness about doing or saying the “wrong thing.”

Too frequently people hesitate even approaching someone who is disabled because they do not know what to do or say.  Such hesitation does not mean they are “bad” people; rather, they do not wish to feel self-conscious or make the person feel embarrassed.

This kind of training can be a beginning towards congregational acceptance of this topic and of people with disabilities.  Barbara Ceconi noted:  “When I use these basics in a seminar, I am always surprised by the number of people who do not know this information.  After giving a talk about the cultural and religious history of disability at an Ivy League university, the number of people who invited me to speak at their institutions was surprising.”

Many of these workshops will assist congregations in feeling that accreditation is a compelling opportunity for their congregation to grow both spiritually and holistically.  Congregations who participate in the process will discover the strengths of congregants who are disabled and what they have to offer, not only because of the disability, but like any other congregant.  All congregants bring their strengths and weaknesses to their place of worship.


  • Increase participants’ awareness of similarities and differences.
  • Understand consequences of such knowledge or lack of knowledge.
  • Improve effectiveness of collaboration among people living with and without disabilities.
  • Learn welcoming techniques to use when interacting with people with disabilities.
  • Learn that not all people with disabilities fit into widely known categories.

Learning Objectives

  • Participants will be able to offer many examples of similarities and differences between both within and among broad categories of disability.
  • Participants will be able to explain the consequence of recognizing or failing to recognize both differences and similarities.


You will need a chalice.


Make copies of the handouts:


There are several possible activities listed for this workshop.  It will probably not be possible to do all of the activities in one session.  Choose the activities that will work best for your congregation.  If you are getting some good dialogue, you may choose to do these activities in more than one session.

Spiritual Preparation

Set aside time for journaling, reflection, or other form of contemplation, using these thoughts:

  • Justice, equity, and compassion cannot be present without understanding.  The needs, desires, aspirations, and character of individuals must be known to us if we are to achieve true justice, equity, and compassion.  We must actively seek to know and comprehend the realities of another person’s life experience that arises from their particular abilities if we hope to live out our second principle.
  • How do you think you can understand the reality of another person?
  • Is there a time when you felt that someone else understood your reality?
  • Is there a time when you felt that someone else did not understand your reality?

Workshop Plan

Welcoming and Entering

Chalice Lighting

We light this chalice in memory of the courage
Of those who have lived with challenges,
The persistence of those who’ve struggled for justice,
And the love of those who’ve built beloved communities
To carry on the light of hope.

—Paul Sprecher, adapted

Opening Reading

Edward Shapiro tell us in his book, Lost in Familiar Places, that the clinical study and treatment of families has revealed one trait to be the hallmark of healthy and stable families:  that trait is curiosity.  This is to say that in many families where individuals have significant problems, the family members show a striking lack of curiosity about one another.  Instead, the family members are remarkably certain that they know, understand and can speak for other family members without further discussion.  In these conflicted families, “if individual members attempt to challenge assertion about whom they are, they encounter bland denial, unshakable conviction or platitudinous reassurance.” 

Curiosity.  A simple word which means so much.  Curiosity.  “An inborn instinct to learn … which later leads to an interest in the experience of others.”

Why are some families less able than other families to be curious?  Because to be curious is to allow a child to have a separate experience of the world from that of the parents, and some families cannot tolerate this difference.  In these families, Shapiro writes, parents “appear to be prematurely certain about their child.”  They are certain because as many of us know, it’s much easier to attempt to be certain than it is to acknowledge our uncertainty about life.  And, as Shapiro notes, “Excessive certainty contributes to the disconnection of people.”—Kevin Ford, Excerpt from sermon, “Mirror, Mirror on the Wall, Who’s the Most Religiously Correct UU of Them All?


Choose the activities that will work best for your congregation.

Activity 1:  Disability Introduction and Etiquette (45 minutes) [Recommended]

If possible this introductory activity should be facilitated by a person who has a disability and is accepting of the various levels of knowledge in the congregation.  Ideally this facilitator would be a respected congregation member.  This workshop is a place to start the process of furthering education and feeling secure when approaching a person who has a disability, allowing everyone—both the person with a disability and the person without the disability—to feel secure when beginning to interact.

Begin by having the facilitator talk about his or her disability and ask if people have questions.

Observations by Barbara Ceconi who is blind and has taught many such classes:

As a rule, I am completely open to questions.  I have discovered that regardless of age, everyone asks the same kinds of questions.  As a facilitator never get defensive or hostile; do not facilitate with your own agenda.  Only teach the basics and raise the level of comfort.

After speaking with other disabled facilitators they get the best effects when they are comfortable with the curriculum and allow the audience to laugh or joke.  After discussing appropriate language, I was approached by an audience member who asked, “Do we now have to refer to disabled vehicles on the road as a car with a disability?”  This was wonderful because he learned the information apart from the silly joke.  It helps lowering the barriers towards acceptance.

Distribute the Handout:  Tips and Techniques to Provide a Welcoming
Environment for People with Disabilities.  Discuss the tips and techniques in the handout and use them in the following activities.

Activity 2:  Exploring Advantages (10 minutes)

In this activity we explore the advantages of focusing on common experiences among a diverse community, while also recognizing the advantages of paying attention to the differences in experience based on the nature of specific disabilities.  The charts below are partial lists of benefits that come from appreciating both similarities and differences.

Benefits of Appreciating Similarities

  • Allow alliances to form
  • Enhances leverage when advocating for inclusion and access
  • Suggest solutions that may be more powerful or universal
  • Increase political strength of those living with disability

Benefits of Appreciating Differences

  • Allows us to appreciate uniqueness of individuals
  • Avoid one-size-fits-all thinking
  • Individuals feel seen and realize that they matter
  • Understanding actually lived experience is enhanced

Ask participants to offer other benefits.  If participants have specific examples of the above benefits, encourage them to share with the group.

Activity 3:  Patterns in Other Historically Marginalized Communities (30 minutes)

By exploring other historically marginalized communities that may be familiar to participants, the participants will be more receptive to understanding the role of similarities and differences within the community of people living with disabilities in subsequent activities of this workshop. 

The Unitarian Universalist Assocation's (UUA’s) Journey Toward Wholeness Transformation Committee, in its anti-racism, anti-oppression work, recognized many historically marginalized communities and noted that while they could be aggregated into larger groups that shared common concerns, the distinct subgroups also experienced different issues in confronting oppression.

For this activity, we propose two possible historically marginalized communities to use for discussion.  Explore the difference and similarity of one of the two communities in an open conversation with participants.  Based on who attends the workshop, pick the community for which there is the most lived experience in the room.

The two possible groups we propose discussing are people of color and the LGBT community.

People of Color:  This community organizes around historically marginalized groups who collectively self-identify as people of color, based on race and ethnicity.

Collectively, they find strength and common purpose by coming together as a single community while recognizing that not all experiences are shared.  Each faces some particular form of discrimination as shown below: 

All Face discrimination and prejudice based on race
Latino/a Immigration status challenged
Asian Patronized as model minorities who are brainy and constantly asked where they are from
African Americans Extolled as natural athletes or presumed to be gang-bangers
Native Americans Alcoholics and team mascots
Arab/Middle Eastern Assumed to be Muslim and terrorists

The LGBT Community:  The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) community is also defined by two distinct dimensions of identity, sexual orientation and gender identity/expression.  As with people of color, the experiences of the constituent groups of this community are different.

Gay  men Homophobia
Lesbians Homophobia, sexism
Transgender Transphobia—discriminated against in housing and employment
Queer, Questioning and Intersex Sometimes marginalized within the gay community

The items listed in the charts are examples and are certainly not exhaustive.  Ask participants to add to the list.  Encourage people to share directly lived experience and to use I-statements rather than make broad, speculative generalizations.

Try to balance the discussion with examples of what the community as a whole shares in common (similarities) and what makes the constituent groups distinct (differences).

Be prepared for discomfort.  Keep the focus on exploration and personal insight rather than debate and abstract argument.

In the next activity, you will focus on the role of similarity and difference in the community of people living with disability by examining the commonality and distinctness of experience of people who are Deaf or hard of hearing.

Activity 4:  Continuum of Disability (30 minutes)

Choose a disability that has a broad range of experience.  Have participants list what they know about the different circumstances and factors that form the range.  Although the group may choose to explore other disabilities, what follows are examples of the variation with disabilities related to hearing, which includes the Deaf and hard of hearing.

Range of Experience of Hearing Disabilities



Age when becoming Deaf or hard of hearing  People experience the world differently from one another based on age at which hearing loss started, the severity of the loss, the range and quality of sounds that are audible, and whether they have access to sophisticated technology.
Parents are hearing or Deaf Deaf people with one or both parents who are Deaf are more successful at acquiring high-level language skills than those who have two hearing parents.
Language Skill Development Has the person has learned sign language, Braille or reading lips, or communication by sign language, writing, or speech?  Underdeveloped language skills do not necessarily result in diminished cognitive ability but can affect the ability to transmit and receive information.
Is Deafness a disability? Deaf people, unlike people who are hard of hearing, are much less likely to view their condition as a disability.  They see it as a different way of living in this world.  Many Deaf people have created and participate in a community that is separate and distinct, with its own culture.

If you have completed Activity 3:  Patterns in Other Historically Marginalized Communities, ask people to consider and discuss the common and distinct characteristics of the Deaf and hard of hearing communities with the same approach.  Encourage them to draw parallels.

Discuss how the church can respond to the community as a whole and balance that with responding to them as individuals.

The congregation will undoubtedly need to provide accommodations for people living with disabilities that they are not currently providing.  For this activity, discuss how you will assess and prioritize providing accommodations.  The focus is not so much on what you will do, but how, and from whom, will you gather the information?  Discuss how principles of universal access influence the information gathering.

Activity 5:  Characteristics Shared by Several Disabilities (20 minutes)

Ask participants to identify characteristics shared across various disabilities.  For example, people with disabilities are often marginalized and treated as less than regardless of disability.  Another example is hidden disabilities.  The nature and character of them is widely divergent, yet people with hidden disabilities all confront the decision of when and how to reveal a disability.

Activity 6:  Role Playing (30 minutes)

Create a role-playing exercise where one participant assumes the role of someone living with a particular disability (the specific nature of their disability and means of accommodation are secretly shared) and another person who is given a set of assumptions about the person that do not match.  Create a setting or situation for them to interact.  An example might be first-time visitor and usher or a member of the buildings and grounds committee and a member advocating for physical accessible.


“If we are to achieve a richer culture, rich in contrasting values, we must recognize the whole gamut of human potentialities, and so weave a less arbitrary social fabric, one in which each diverse human gift will find a fitting place.”—Margaret Mead

For more information contact aim@uua.org.

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