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Last Saturday I attended a Disability Concerns conference in Kitchener, Ontario, called, “Helping People Include People.” The featured speaker, Barbara Newman, did a wonderful job helping those in attendance with great ideas for including people with disabilities in the full life of the church.

The central idea of her presentation revolved around a puzzle piece that was half green and half pink. Although many people think about people with disabilities as having needs and non-disabled people having gifts to offer, Newman said that nondisabled and disabled each have gifts and needs. Each of us has “green” areas of our lives – things that we are good at – and we have pink areas of our lives – things we are not good at. Like the members of body, so the puzzle pieces fit together because we all need each other.

As an example, Newman talked about her son, Jon, and his friend, Ryan. Some people have said to Newman, “How wonderful that Jon is willing to be a friend to Ryan” (who has Down Syndrome). She said that she likes to respond to that comment, “Yes! And how wonderful that Ryan is willing to be a friend to Jon.” As one example of Ryan’s friendship to Jon, she said that she felt afraid when Jon got his driver’s license and drove off for the first time by himself with the car. Then she remembered that Ryan has been praying for Jon every day since Jon was in first grade. She relaxed about Jon and the car, knowing that Jon was covered in prayer.

Newman’s special education training and experience allowed her to give especially rich practical ideas for the inclusion of people with intellectual and learning disabilities. Much of what she talked about can be found in the Church Services division section of the CLC Network website. Here are a few examples:​

  • Sequence: since some children and adults need to have a clear idea about the expected sequence of events in a worship service or Sunday school class, picture icons which can be attached to a laminated sheet can show someone the order of events. And the tool can be customized for each event.
  • Busy fingers: Fidget pencils come equipped with plastic wing nuts that one can spin up and down the pencil – a great way to keep fingers busy with something that will not disrupt others. I enjoyed playing with one myself while she spoke.
  • Giving praise: Colorful ribbons attached to sticks or to hoops allow people who are non-verbal to join in “singing” praise to God.
  • Participating in a litany: Newman showed us a switch operated by a large red button. The switch could record a brief phrase or sentence. This tool would allow people who have difficulty speaking to participate in leading a litany in church. Yes, leading. Newman suggested that anyone could record the word “Hallelujah” or something else appropriate for the litany. Then, each time that word is to be spoken in the litany, the person with the disability could press the button to “say” the word or phrase.
  • Timing: Some children do not have a good internal clock. They have a difficult time coping with being given five minutes to play, then being told at the end of the five minutes that they have to stop. The difficulty comes not because they are belligerent, but because they have no idea how long five minutes is. So Newman demonstrated a count-down timer which shows a section in red that got smaller and smaller until it was finally gone. (All visual, no jolting alarm when the time was up!) In fact, she used it herself for her talks. It made me wonder how different I would preach if I had a countdown timer showing the diminishing time I had left to finish my message!
  • Support for the whole family: Newman also talked briefly about the GLUE team manual and GLUE training which help congregations help families in their church who are dealing with special circumstances from a child with fragile health to an older couple in which one of them is dealing with dementia.

Besides checking out the CLC website, I highly recommend Newman’s books, Helping Kids Include Kids with Disabilities, and, Autism and Your Church, as fine tools to help people involved in church education find ways for all children in church to participate in meaningful ways.

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