Welcoming people with disabilities

February 13th, 2018

Increasing accessibility

Data from the most recent census finds that one in five people living in the United States has some form of physical, mental, or emotional disability. Thankfully, over the past 50 years, the Disability Rights Movement has won significant legal victories that have allowed people with disabilities to have more control over their own lives.

Legislation such as the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 has allowed more students with disabilities to be taught in “mainstreamed” classrooms, improving their educational outcomes. Most buildings must now be accessible to people with physical disabilities, allowing many of them access to crucial places where they were previously unable to gain entry.

However, it’s still an open question about whether churches have kept pace by fully welcoming people with disabilities. Erik Carter, a Vanderbilt University special education professor, describes faith communities as an “uneven landscape,” with some congregations excelling at inclusion, while others don’t address the needs of people with disabilities. Many of these, he says, aren’t “intentionally excluding anyone; they just really haven’t thought about their communities including people with disabilities and what they would need to do to really welcome them well.”

Celebrating all children

Carter was part of a team that surveyed 416 parents of children with disabilities about their experience with faith communities. Only 43 percent of the parents described their religious community as “supportive.” Nearly one-third said they had changed their place of worship because their child wasn’t welcomed or included.

Some small to midsize congregations may assume they don’t have the resources to provide adequate support and programming for children with disabilities, but the Vanderbilt study found that factors such as the size and location of the congregation didn’t make a significant difference in families’ experiences. Study coauthor Megan Griffin says, “That’s really an empowering sort of message. Ultimately, faith leaders can promote the inclusion of people with disabilities.”

Robyn Schueler has two children with Down syndrome. Schueler is one parent who sought a new church home when her existing church placed limits on which activities one of her children could participate in. She knew her new church home, Tulip Grove Baptist Church in Hermitage, Tennessee, was the right one because they celebrated her nine-year-old daughter for who she was. “They didn’t see the Down syndrome first, and that’s what’s important to me. That you see the child, not the diagnosis.”

Eric Boswell, Tulip Grove’s children’s minister, says their ministry is inspired by Jesus’ instruction in Mark 10:14 to let the children come to him. “There was no exclusion. It was all kids,” Boswell said. “That’s the heartbeat of our church that we include all people.” The congregation has been working on becoming more welcoming for several years and currently serves 10 families who have at least one person with a disability. Church staff meet with each family to come up with a plan that will best minister to each particular person. Church staff also seek out education opportunities so they can equip their volunteers with needed information and resources.

Acknowledging the whole person

That All May Worship: An Interfaith Welcome to People with Disabilities includes an affirmation about who we are as God’s creation. It states, “Each of us has abilities; each seeks fulfillment and wholeness. Each of us has disabilities; each knows isolation and incompleteness.” The guidebook encourages people of faith to look at every person as someone who primarily has abilities “and only secondarily as someone who may need assistance to use those abilities.”

One of the greatest obstacles facing churches hoping to fully minister to and with people who have disabilities can be their own internalized biases and attitudes. For example, in a 2007 study of church attendees by Jeff McNair, one in four participants said they were either unsure about or disagreed with the statement that people with disabilities were created in the image of God.

Too often the language and actions of faith leaders have demonstrated an “us vs. them” mentality that strictly separates people into either an able-bodied or disabled category. This can lead to attitudes of pity that devalue people.

George F. White, director of church ministries for Camp Barnabas in Missouri, writes that there’s a “symbiotic relationship in that people with disabilities need the church and the church needs people with disabilities.” Every person needs a loving community where we’re accepted as children of God.

Theologian Nancy Eiesland, who was born with a congenital bone defect, wrote, “The church is impoverished without our [people with disabilities] presence. Our narratives and bodies make clear that ordinary lives incorporate contingency and difficulty. . . . People with disabilities in the church announce the presence of the disabled God for us and call the church to become a communion of struggle.”

Removing barriers in the church

There are a variety of ways churches can become more inclusive of people with disabilities. Just as in any other ministry situation, relationships of trust and care have to be developed first. Improving communication with adult members with disabilities and the parents of children with disabilities is also key, according to sociologist Andrew Whitehead of Clemson University. In his survey of parents of children with disabilities, more than half said they had never been asked about the best way to include their child in religious activities. Having a resource person within the church who is proactive about seeing what assistance is needed can help.

Churches can identify where physical improvements are needed by conducting an accessibility audit of the building. (The Disability Ministries Committee of The United Methodist Church has a form churches can use here.) Making available amplified audio devices, printed copies of sermons and large-print bulletins can make it easier for people to participate in worship. Having people with disabilities participate in an audit will help ensure that no accessibility barriers are missed.

Worship planners can ensure that people with disabilities are asked to participate as lay readers, acolytes, ushers and Communion servers. Including more multisensory experiences in worship can provide all worshipers with ways to participate. The Reverend Kimberly Anne Willis encourages pastors and worship planners to become more aware of the metaphors they use in sermons, liturgies, and hymns that can unintentionally hurt people with disabilities, such as being “blind to God’s presence” or “deaf to God’s voice.”

A transportation ministry can ensure that members with limited vision or mobility are able to join in worship and programs. Small groups can provide Communion services for those members who are homebound.

Many churches have also found great value in partnering with disability-related organizations to educate their members and help their congregations become more welcoming. Networking with these organizations can reveal support resources for adults with disabilities and families of children with disabilities that they may not have previously been aware of.

Finally, congregations can consider formally developing a disability ministry, large or small, within their church. People with disabilities and their family members or caregivers should be invited to serve on a committee so that ministry programs are relevant, supportive and respectful.

White points out that some congregations may be waiting until a person with disabilities arrives at their church before deciding how they can be more welcoming. If a church has a lack of accessibility, though, people with disabilities may not even attempt to come.

As we consider how we can offer true welcome to as many people as possible, may we be guided by Isaiah’s words: “My house will be known as a house of prayer for all peoples” (Isaiah 56:7). In embracing ministry with people who have disabilities, we’ll surely see God working in new ways in our churches and in our lives as disciples.

Be sure to check out FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups.

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