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7 ways congregations can embrace people with special needs

A 4-year-old with impaired vision is not allowed in the toddler class in church, but is forced to remain in the nursery.

The mother of an elementary school child with dwarfing syndrome is told her church cannot provide a stool to allow her daughter to reach the bathroom sink because it would be an insurance risk.

A minister refuses to visit a family’s home because their teen with autism makes him feel uncomfortable.

The larger society may be moving forward in its understanding and inclusion of people with disabilities. But the above stories reported in a study of more than 400 parents of children with special needs illustrates how far behind many religious congregations are in this effort.

Just 43 percent of the 416 parents surveyed described their religious community as “supportive,” researchers from the University of Kentucky and Vanderbilt University found.

Almost a third of parents reported having changed their place of worship because their child had not been included or welcomed. More than half kept their sons or daughters from participating in a religious activity because of a lack of support.

The lack of inclusion is of special concern because faith communities help develop supportive social networks and provide hope and optimism in challenging situations. And those functions appear to be particularly beneficial to people with disabilities and their loved ones.

For example, the more frequently children with special needs attended religious services,  the higher parents rated their family lives together, sociologist Andrew Whitehead of Clemson University found in analyzing data from the 2011-2012 National Study of Children’s Health.

Those positive outcomes included being better able to cope with the day-to-day demands of raising children with special needs.

So how can churches, mosques and synagogues include the faithful who are disabled?

Below are seven areas researchers have identified:

Communication: Adults with disabilities and parents of children with special needs have to be able to speak to a resource person in the congregation to let them know what is required for their participation, and to learn how they can work together with the community toward full inclusion.

And they need to know their needs – whether it is related to hearing impairment or autism – will be heard, Whitehead said. In the survey of parents of children with disabilities, more than half the parents said they had never been asked about the best way to include their daughter or son in religious activities.  

Accessibility: A basic requirement is that congregations accommodate the physical needs of individuals, whether providing handicapped access or amplified audio or sign language for those with hearing needs.

In one congregation, a wheelchair-bound elementary school child could not attend Sunday School because it was held in an inaccessible area, a mother reported. Church leaders said carrying the youth downstairs was too great a liability risk.

Support: Including the disabled in congregational life goes beyond adding a new sound system or a wheelchair ramp.

For example, people with autism or Down syndrome may need special assistance such as an aide or a peer assistant to participate in religious education classes and Vacation Bible Schools.

Offering worship alternatives such as a shorter service with contemporary music also may allow for greater participation for individuals with attention deficit issues. Having a congregational resource person trained in disability issues is a huge plus.

Leadership: Faith communities where leaders are committed to including people with disabilities were more welcoming, offered greater opportunities for people with disabilities to share their gifts and were more physically accessible, according to a primarily Web-based survey of 160 respondents conducted by Vanderbilt University researchers.

Participation: Inviting people with disabilities to serve on boards and committees and to take visible roles in congregational life — from greeters to readers to worship planners — is an important sign they are valued members of the community.

Building inclusive communities “is not just about welcoming people with disabilities, but truly including them and respecting what they have to contribute to the community,” said Megan Griffin, lead researcher in the Vanderbilt study.

Education: Congregations that educate their members on disability issues and work together with disability-related organizations are also more welcoming and better able to integrate people with special needs into the life of the community, studies find.

Love: The attitudes of fellow congregants may be the most critical factor in whether a religious community is inclusive. In studies, parents of children with special needs who experienced love and acceptance reported their congregations were sources of great strength and support.

In cases where disapproval or censure replaces love, however, the results can be devastating for both people with special needs and their families, the research indicates.

Some may even abandon their spiritual home or even their faith.

Such disapproval “basically just sends a message you’re not wanted here,” said Whitehead, a former director of the U.S. Congregational Life Survey. “It just makes you feel worthless, that it would be better if you weren’t there.”

The good news is that just about any congregation can serve the disabled.

The Vanderbilt study found that factors such as congregation size, the number of people with disabilities or its location in an urban, suburban or rural setting did not make a significant difference.

“That’s really an empowering sort of message,” Griffin said. “Ultimately, faith leaders can promote the inclusion of people with disabilities.”

And everyone benefits when congregations embody love and acceptance for all members, several studies have found.

As one mother noted in the study of parents, her young adult daughter with a moderate to severe intellectual disability did not have a sophisticated theological grasp of her faith.

Yet, she “helped the members of that community to have a better understanding of God. … She kind of radiates love.”

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