Including People With Disabilities in Church Life
December 9, 2009
Updated November 30, 2017
12 comments 1705 views
Sharon, a member of our church, asked me what I do for a living. I told her that I help churches learn how to include people with disabilities in their life and ministry.
Her eyes brightened, and she asked me how.
I eagerly told her a few ideas, but there was more to say. So for Sharon and for all who want their church to be a healthy, vibrant community where everybody belongs and everybody serves, here are some ideas.
Start with kindness. Few people intend to be unkind. But many people with disabilities experience unkindness. Even in church. Our daughter Nicole is non-verbal, but she knows when she is being treated kindly, and when she is ignored. Inclusion begins with a relationship, with recognizing the image of God in every person. When we are kind to others, we are kind to God. Greet people with disabilities warmly, including people who cannot respond with words. Ask the person using a walker how you might help. Greet the woman with a cognitive impairment, and use her name. Ask the mother of an autistic son what life is like; then really listen.
Make easier changes first. Instead of saying, "Please stand," during a worship service, worship leaders should use a more inclusive phrase like, "Please rise in body or in spirit." This phrase includes all members of the congregation, whereas "Please stand," does not. Provide large print bulletins for people with visual impairments. Distribute print copies of lyrics displayed on the overhead screen for people who cannot stand. Build a ramp to the foyer and make a pew cut-out for wheelchairs. Later, install a fully accessible unisex bathroom.
Acknowledge differences. Offer grape juice and gluten-free bread for those who need these alternatives to wine and regular bread at communion. Stop wearing perfume and aftershave to church so that people who have allergies can breathe freely while they worship.
Find a gift and unleash it. The old church growth saying was, “Find a need and fill it.” This approach patronized people in need by assuming that they had nothing to give. God gives spiritual gifts to all his children, including people with disabilities. Churches that invite everyone to share their gifts for ministry find God’s grace flowing in new and wonderful ways.
Dig deeper. Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” (Matthew 16:24) In healthy church life, the further a congregation walks down the road of including all members, the greater the cost and the more difficult the process. Real friendship, and not just foyer fellowship, takes work—especially, say, with the developmentally delayed young woman who dominates every conversation. Listening to the mother whose son has autism takes energy, but finding ways to help her family with the challenges they face takes long-term commitment. Visiting a young man from your church who has schizophrenia means overcoming your own fears about what to say and do.
As congregations dig to this deeper level of inclusion, Disability Concerns stands ready to help with a network of hundreds of volunteers, with various print and Internet resources, and with a variety of workshops and conferences offered across North America.
Discover the joy. God doesn’t make mistakes. “God has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them just as he wanted them to be.” (1 Corinthians 12:18) As we fully include all whom God has brought into the congregation, our joy is made complete, and our ministry is made whole.
This article appeared in slightly different form in Breaking Barriers, Issue 75, Fall 2007. Used by permission.
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Ken, thanks for your note. You sound really discouraged. I can only imagine how difficult it must be to be estranged from society and church. I hope you find some good interactions through the Internet here on the Network and elsewhere, and pray that you will know God's presence with you.
As for the number of comments, yes, I too wish there were more. But the Network is quite new yet. I'm thankful that you took the time to write a note. Also, my page says that this page was looked at 349 times already. Maybe people are looking and even learning, but not speaking up.
Since you are having trouble with the security feature on the Network, will you please tell our webmaster who may be able to make it a bit more accessible: [email protected]?
I think that writing and commenting on this site is a way to tell your story, kelib...it may have to be in small parts, but every time you share your thoughts and experiences here, you are telling your story. And in sharing, you help more people than you may ever know; as Mark says, many people are looking--they just choose not to comment. Trust that your words will be read and used as God planned them to be :) Sometimes, I wish He whispered a little louder to us...let us know that we are going in the right direction...that we have touched others with our words.
I agree with your comment that 'people do not seem to have the time'...I think because we had no choice but to learn patience and look at life (in general) a lot differently than we did when we were healthy, that people's busy-ness really stands out to us. It is difficult to get those around us to stand as still as we have to, and appreciate the smaller things that are going on...like looking up in awe at God's amazing stars, or watching squirrels gather up their winter stashes.We get responses like... I can't take time to watch animals! Work needs to get done and the squirrels will not pay the bills...look at the stars?! I have to go to bed right now and don't have time to waste 5 minutes looking at the sky! But-that's why we keep talking/writing...and I know that our words will be of comfort to someone, adn make a difference to someone...even if we are not aware of it:)
I'm sorry to hear you feel that way, and I hope you give the Network a little more time. Spitfire welcomed the sharing of your story, and I'd like to do the same. Considering that you have been in dialogue with other people on the Network, others have been listening to parts of your story as well. As Spitfire says above, "every time you share your thoughts and experiences here, you are telling your story."
People do care...why do you think we are talking here? I shared that I have MS as well, and I know that feeling of downright despair when I feel that people don't understand or care. I get it. Which is why I invited you to drop me a line-so we could connect; as Christians and as people that have the same disease.
I am shaking my head right now...you say that there is a lack of compassion, and you don't feel any love here--that is so sad, and I am sorry you are so down right now--but I wonder if you noticed that you have showed Mark and myself that same lack of compassion with your statement? Nobody shows love or compassion here? Have you read what I have been saying to you? You words prompt me to wonder why I am not important enough to respond to, or have my invitation to email acknowledged? I hope it is not because I have MS. Mark and I have sincerely reached out to you, and I pray that you will still take us up on our offers of Christian fellowship. Never give up on others kelib, please. I do hope you come back to the Network:)
kelib...I would be more than happy to tell the stories of all the broken people...but I cannot do that alone. We are all broken, kelib, in one way or another. The judgment you place on yourself is so harsh-it is God’s place to judge who is or is not a good disciple. And you are right, pain can blind us and crush our spirit, but that does not make us hypocrites...just human.
I understand the war we wage with the demons of depression and this awful disease. I understand that at certain times, we have absolutely no control over our emotions because of the activity of the lesions and the mis-firings of the messages in our brain. There are many (too many) times in my day that I have to stop writing or reading--because I forget how for a time. What frightens me is that although these mental mis-firings can be explained to a degree; it feels like I am an outside observer watching some form of dementia settle into my life...and then, poof! Clarity returns for a time. It is a disease that makes it difficult to be content and at peace with oneself.
We should never be ashamed of that. It is not hypocrisy that makes us feel so utterly angry with others not showing compassion...it is pain; physically, spiritually, and mentally. No one is perfect! We all get frightened. Even Jesus was terrified in the garden and felt he was forsaken at the end...My point is, just because Jesus was scared and alone and cried out in anguish, it does not ‘undo’ all the things He spoke about in His teachings, or take away all He accomplished before His final hours! Remember Paul’s promise in Romans 8:26 & 27: “The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit speaks for us with sighs and groans too deep for words.” Psalm 22:1-11 and Psalm 22:22-31 offers all of us assurance and comfort as well.
We both understand that this disease is difficult, and no one with an affliction as ours can do it alone; so, please kelib, I ask that you tell the leaders with me...together we can represent the broken ones like ourselves.
kelib, pleased to "see" you again!
Thanks for the article. As both a parent of a child who has a disability and someone who works in the field, I appreciate it. I especially love the suggestion of a unisex bathroom as this is so often a challenge as a female worker when assisting a male with a disability with toileting. It just seems so inappropriate to take a man into a women's washroom.
I'm also glad you clarified your statement, "God doesn't make mistakes" with the verse from 1 Cor 12 - so often I heard well-meaning family members and friends say that to us after our son was born with Down syndrome and I found myself often hurt by it and left wondering if others saw our son as being "broken" or "a mistake". We loved him and were thankful for him as a gift from God, not as someone who was flawed or in need of fixing. He is now seven and continues to bless us and others daily :)
Katrina, Thanks for your note. So if I understand you right, you are saying that when people have said to you, "God doesn't make mistakes," it felt to you that their underlying assumption is that people with disabilities just might be mistakes. I can see that that would be hurtful. What have you found to be helpful comments from others? Mark
It was great when people said "congratulations" and seemed genuinely happy. Another great thing was when people who remarked on how cute he was or how much he looked like me or my husband or his big sister. Also when people offered support or asked to do normal things - go shopping or out to coffee. Even people who came by to visit - it was definitely a true friendship test to see who still came around and called and who didn't - and I would also say that if a new parent is standoffish for a while at first, don't give up - maybe give them some space for a while but after a bit they will crave friendships again and will need you to be there for them. While our son has been a delight to have in our family, he has also had a few major medical challenges and required surgery on both his heart and his neck. He also was very sick for a while until we discovered he had celiac disease (gluten intolerance). The support we received from people during those trying times by way of meals, calls, visits, gift cards - was wonderful. Also it was great when people made offers to babysit or even hold our son (as a baby) - it showed that they accepted him and weren't afraid - also it's great now when people talk to him - ask him how he's doing rather than ask us how he's doing. Other suggestions on ways to support families in your congregation might be to set up a volunteer list for a child who needs extra support in their sunday school or if you notice an older person or child/teen with a disability who is sometimes unable to sit a whole service you could offer to take the individual for a walk so that his/her parents can stay in church and not always be forced to leave with their son or daughter. Use the person's name as much as possible and avoid referring to the person by their disability (ie say person with schizophrenia rather than "schizophrenic" or "person with a disability, person with Down syndrome" rather than "disabled guy" or "Downs boy") And when in doubt - ask! Most families of a person with a disability will be happy to answer your questions and help to educate you - after all we ALL love to brag about our kids and most parents/family members also realize that the more people know about their child or family member's disability the better it will be. We also realize that at one point, before our child entered our lives or our family member became disabled, we also had no clue about how to talk or act around people with disabilities - and we are happy to help with advocacy and educating others to raise awareness and acceptance. It's much better to ask questions than make assumptions.
Other things that I would advise against saying or doing - don't say "I'm sorry" (the child is alive and a gift from God), don't say "you can't really tell he has a disability" (I had a lot of people at first try to make me feel better by saying they couldn't see that our son had Down syndrome but that didn't change the fact that he did :), avoid the use of platitudes or stereotypes (eg: "people with Down syndrome/disabilities are always so happy!" or "people with disabilities are 'forever children'")
Oh and one last thing I would advise to all people - never ever ever call a person "retarded" - it's a very hurtful term. Don't say it when you are joking around with your friends. Don't even say it to refer to yourself when you do something stupid. Or to an object. Because by saying that something is "retarded" when you really mean that it is "stupid" you are ultimately saying that people with disabilities (those who have a medical diagnosis of mental retardation) are stupid too.
Hopefully that all made sense. Thanks again for spreading awareness to make churches more inclusive :)
Wow, Katrina, thanks for your detailed reply. This is great! I really appreciate your perspective as a mom.
We have a disability coordinator at our church. It is their job to make sure the church is accessible to people with disabilities and to work with families to make sure that their individual needs are met.
We also make an effort to make sure that every ministry team includes people with disabilities on them. This not only makes people with disabilities feel more comfortable coming to church but more importantly they are a valuable addition each of the ministry teams.
Dynamic Community Outreach
This is fantastic advice! I'm going to implement the phrase "please rise in spirit" during tomorrow's worship service for our church.
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