We all have teenagers in our youth programs who receive supports and services for disabilities. Figuring out the best ways to include these amazing young people in our programs, to help them connect with peers and friends, and to share their gifts and strengths with the church is part of the joy and challenge of youth ministry. When we work with a team, communicate with people with disabilities and their support network, and take a strengths-based approach, we find that God has even more amazing plans for our ministry with youth with disabilities than we could have imagined!
Working in the church, Huggins knows how difficult it can be to implement a capital campaign to install elevators or even ramps. But what research shows, she says, is that attitudes in a congregation can be an even bigger barrier than any physical challenge to accessibility.
“You don’t have to be an expert to be inclusive. You do have to listen to the real experts — those with disabilities,” she said.
Inclusion takes a long time. It’s slow work, patient work, like tending a garden, or raising kids. You have to be there to patiently support things that go well, and to shape and change when things don’t go well. It takes care and attention. In some ways, that’s what makes it good work for the church. We aren’t trendy- or current- or cool. We are slow. It’s our super power. But the good news is that slow change is also lasting change.
A friend asked me the other day why our church didn’t design a separate program for people with disabilities with branding and a name and a director- I said that the gift of diversity was too valuable for separate programs. I explained that in a community like ours that struggles with affluenza, that the powerful panacea of inclusion was too good a gift, too good a cure to squander. “Maybe it’s selfish, but inclusion of people with disabilities in our church is so good for everyone in the church that I can’t imagine separate programs.”
So even though it takes a long time, working toward full inclusion through out the whole leadership of the church means having conversations together, celebrating small successes, connecting people to their passions and nurturing a deep bench of people who are committed to welcoming people with disabilities at Central is allowing us to use our slow change super power to create something beautiful, something lasting and something that we are all a part of- together.
The American’s with Disabilities Act paved the way for accessibility, services and supports necessary for people with disabilities to engage fully in our communities. This landmark legislation was the result of years of advocacy, policy work, and legislation, and it was built on the Civil rights movement. Disability rights are civil rights, and the work of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is at the heart of our continued work of justice, inclusion, access and belonging. Every day people with disabilities are faced with economic, transportation, housing and healthcare challenges because of their membership in a minority group. The work of Dr. King continues every day as individuals, advocates and families work to create systems that support justice, access and equity for people with disabilities. https://www.disabilityempowerment.net/?p=228.
Perspective taking is powerful for children, and disability awareness lessons can be a great way to help children understand disabilities. It’s important when designing and choosing materials that we promote a positive view of disability, and that we stay away from stereotypes.
Keep it Simple
Although we might have a goal for children to be able to better understand their peer on the autism spectrum, or with Spina Bifida, complex disabilities and syndromes aren’t simple- and the particular experiences of people with these issues is varied and complex. For the purposes of a demonstration, it may be simpler to stick with things like ear plugs to talk about deafness and sensory differences, and blindfolds to talk about blindness.
Steer Clear of Stereotypes
If your activities could be perceived as making fun of someone- don’t do them. Disability Awareness is great- but make sure it’s respectful. If you aren’t sure, then ask members of your team- be sure to include people of different ages, and self advocates.
Keep it Positive
Rather than focus on things that are hard, frustrating, or that you can’t do, try focusing on how you can accommodate, and strengths of the experience.
Faith communities build leaders- we see the same story across American History- from the revolutionary war to the modern civil rights movement, leaders nurtured in their faith communities as young people, who go on to bring our country into a better and brighter future. As faith communities, who we call and nurture as lay and youth leaders in our communities is important, and being sure that the leaders that we call are representative of our whole faith community is essential.
Calling and nurturing leaders with disabilities may take intentional planning. The following ideas may help you:
Focus on strengths: The easiest place to lead is out of our strengths. Look for the interests and strengths of members with disabilities, and invite people into leadership around those strengths- does a person love music? Like technology? Have a natural gift for hospitality? Great- put people to work based on their strengths. Church leaders can even think about ways to be creative- creating new leadership roles in worship, fellowship, education, or service that meet the strengths of parishioners.
Start outside of worship: Although we always think about making changes in worship, sometimes it’s easier to pilot changes in less public areas of church life. Think about fellowship, service and education settings first, then move up to worship.
Use supported leadership: Co-leadership of committees, companies and organizations is increasingly common. We can embrace shared leadership in our faith communities as well. Using peer supports in leadership roles is an excellent way to support faith leaders with disabilities.
Embrace imperfection: Embrace mistakes and imperfection in your own leadership- and teach your congregation that perfection is not the aim of worship. Help them to tolerate and grow comfortable supporting imperfection and vulnerability, helping your congregation to embrace inclusion.
Maximize on routines and traditions: Do you have roles in your faith community that don’t change much week to week or even year to year? Things like lighting the candles, or helping in services are often roles that don’t change much. These kinds of tasks can be a perfect leadership opportunity for people who thrive on routine. Think about adding peer supports, providing practice, or breaking the task into small segments as ways to create a pathway to leadership.
Supporting people with disabilities as leaders in your faith community not only honors God- in whose image we are all created- it also nurtures people with disabilities as leaders in your church, and in our community. Further, when people with disabilities are leaders in your community, it models inclusive practices and gives people the opportunity to see themselves as leaders. For more ideas on how to be more inclusive in your faith community, be sure to check out www.faithinclusion.com.
Welcome back to religious education and worship after the summer holidays means that it’s time to think about registration forms, welcome pads, usher information and other updates to how we take attendance and register people for events in our faith communities. As you take a look at these forms and procedures, think about universal design and supports. Consider the following:
In the Pews
Whether you use an online registration form, or a paper and pencil form in the pews, be sure that your visitor information includes a section for supports. You can highlight supports that you have available (like a hearing loop or large print materials) while you collect information about supports. To get you started you might want to ask questions about:
You can treat this as a way to gather information about the most relevant support needs in your congregation and as a way to connect people to the supports that you offer.
Registering for Events/Classes
Do you want to make it easy for everyone to join- in your fall studies and small groups? Be sure to collect information about supports. Right on the online registration form you can offer certain accommodations and include a space for things that you haven’t thought of. In addition to choosing books and other materials that include an option for audio books, podcast and video, consider asking about the following:
-Large Print or audio study guide
-Accessible meeting room
-Hybrid learning environment
Be sure that your leaders are also thinking about supports for all learners- remember 26% of the population has a disability- so at least ¼ of your adult students need supports- and remind your leaders that this number goes up as people age. They can plan to include everyone in class if they are thinking about strengths of their learners and supports in class.
-Consider providing an outline or guided notes to all students- especially if you giving a lecture.
-Provide a copy of the study guide for everyone- people love to think about what you will be discussing before class.
-Build wait time into your class discussions. People love the chance to gather their thoughts before they respond.
-Facilitate classes so that everyone has the space to respond- not just a few people who love to share.
Children and Youth Registration
For children’s programming, you may have the biggest opportunity to collect information. For these forms, consider universal design when asking about disability and supports- this may make it easier for parents to give you information that is really useful to leaders and volunteers.
In addition to asking about allergies, supports, and health information, consider asking questions about supports that apply to every child in your program. To support behavior challenges, consider questions like: “When your child becomes upset, what helps them calm down?” “Are there any environmental triggers that upset your child (like loud noises, smells or textures)?” “What passions and strengths does your child have that might help our teachers guide their lesson planning (like sports, hobbies, pets, etc…)?” For a sample form, be sure to check out https://faithinclusion.com/2022/01/05/inclusive-forms/.