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What Does an Inclusive Church Look Like for Kids With Disabilities?

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One of my favorite memories includes a 2-year-old boy, a golden chariot and a crowd of people. The boy is my son who has Down syndrome. The chariot is the walker he used when he first started walking. The crowd of people is our church family.

Walking did not come easy to my son, so when he turned 2 years old, he started using a walker to give him some mobility. Even this took practice. One day, we decided to see how he would do with it at church. He had been pretty wobbly at home, but we hoped the straight shot down the children’s hallway would be a good place to stretch his wings. Elliot ended up walking down the entire length of the hall, but what brought tears to my eyes was not my son’s new sense of freedom — it was the people audibly rooting for him. Everyone, from grown men to Elliot’s peers were clapping and cheering. My mama heart was so full it could burst in that moment. Two years later, Elliot (now 4 years old) has ditched the walker, but his fan club remains strong.

In the past few weeks, I have come across two articles in which the writer said she gave up on church because of how their child with disabilities was treated. Even harder to read, the comments sections were filled with parents who had made the same choice for the same reason. My heart sank for these families as I thought of how very different our experience has been.

I want to offer a word of encouragement to parents who have kids with disabilities: though there is no such thing as a perfect church this side of heaven, inclusive churches do exist. But I also want to offer a word of encouragement to churches: You can do this. You need to do this.

I’m not an expert, but I believe both, parents and ministry workers, should strive to meet the needs of children who have disabilities. So, what does an inclusive church look like?

1. Above all else, the pastor speaks directly on this subject. I think it would be impossible to create a culture of inclusivity if the congregation doesn’t hear it from the pulpit. Our pastor, through sermons and prayer time, addresses disability. He reminds us that we are all created in God’s image; that God loves us all; and that we are all called to love our neighbors. So moved by our pastor’s continued commitment to encourage families like ours, my husband will find our pastor after service just to thank him. Then he turns around and thanks us! I truly believe church members will understand the importance of accommodations and the value of patience if they know their pastor believes including families with disabilities isn’t just nonnegotiable, but a gift.

2. There is a plan in place, no matter the size of the church. Our church is not huge, but they have a “special needs” ministry that is led by volunteers. When my son “graduated” from the infant room, one of the volunteers set up a meeting with me to discuss how the church could best serve him. Because of Elliot’s needs, he has a coach (much like an aide in a school setting) with him at all times. He even has a coach on Sunday nights so he can be in the preschool choir. They also know there is not a “one size fits all” approach. While I’ve detailed Elliot’s plan above, I know that there are other children with other diagnoses that have their own plans in place.

3. The lines of communication are open. Parents, talk to your pastor if you’re unhappy before you leave the church. We have to remember churches are filled with imperfect people. I try to put myself in other people’s shoes. Before I had Elliot, I honestly did not know much about Down syndrome or any other disability. I used to be the awkward person trying not to make eye contact in the checkout lane. I used to be the woman who silently judged the mom whose child was running in the cereal aisle. And none of this was because I was a heartless person — it’s because I just didn’t know. Your pastor just might not know. And if he does, he might not know what to do about it. Perhaps your willingness to speak up could be the start of a flourishing disability ministry that reaches other families in your community. In the end, if your current church just isn’t a good fit, please don’t give up. Visit other churches. Tell them your hopes for your child. You will find a place.

One of my favorite Bible passages is Philippians 2:1-4. I think parents of kids with disabilities, ministry workers and other church members can glean so much from Paul’s words: “So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.”

If the church body keeps this in mind, I think we can make it work.

Getty image by Halfpoint

Originally published: January 3, 2019
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