I watched with a smile on my face as the family of three walked up to the welcome desk in our preschool area. They were visiting our church for the first time, so I introduced myself and gave them the information card to fill out as we checked in their four-year-old boy for Sunday School. I noticed the little boy used a walker, and chatted with his mom as we made the long walk down the hall to his assigned classroom.
But as I entered the classroom, my heart sunk, and I knew they wouldn’t be back. We weren’t prepared to have a child with a physical disability in our Sunday School space.
The walk to his classroom was long and across old carpet that rippled, which creates an unnecessary challenge when using any kind of mobility device. The tiny classroom had large furniture that made it difficult to independently navigate. I was disappointed at this revelation because I should know better—I’ve taught children with disabilities for a long time. But that morning I entered the classroom not as a ministry director but as a mom that was visiting for the first time, and as a child who wants and needs to belong to a peer group without restrictions.
I know we didn’t meet the needs of that family, but how could I move forward? I didn’t want to be one of the reasons why 32 percent of parents change their place of worship because their child with a disability was not included or even welcomed. My church isn’t small, but we still face a lot of constraints that many others face, such as having an older building we can’t renovate any time soon, and a limited budget and volunteer base. We aren’t in a place where we can or should begin an entire slate of programs.
But we do need to move from being reactive to being proactive. We do need for our church to reflect the population of the community around us. We should all be prepared for inclusive ministry on a Sunday morning or any time the doors are open. Below are suggestions for churches to consider as you strive to be inclusive of people with disabilities:
- Modify your welcome process. Include an online registration form on your church website for families to fill out prior to arrival at church. This minimizes the time waiting to get checked in and helps get children settled quicker. It also helps staff and volunteers prepare beforehand if it’s a form that can be emailed prior to Sunday. Be sure to include questions on your form about allergies, a child’s likes/dislikes, how to support a child, and a place for parents to write any extra comments they choose.
- Ensure your programs are physically accessible beyond ADA requirements. Katie Wetherbee and Jolene Philo in their book Every Child Welcome suggest designating one door a “gentle entrance” where there are just one or two greeters who are trained to have calm voices, little or no-touch greetings (no high-fives, hugs, etc), dim or soft lighting, and minimal wall décor. A church foyer can be overwhelming and chaotic, even painful to people struggling with sensory sensitivities. Additionally, make sure classrooms are open enough so that children can independently navigate around them and access materials without a lot of difficulty. Other things to consider are: offering flexible seating, keeping classroom wall décor to a minimum, dimming classroom lights, and having noise-cancelling headphones on hand for children with sensitivities to loud noises.
- Train a few consistent volunteers to be a “buddy” to children who need extra support. This person isn’t another classroom teacher or the child’s parent, but functions as a “guide on the side” to help children interact with others and engage with curriculum. If you need help with training, you could contact your local or state association and they can help you network with others. Additionally, you could consider calling a school and reach out to a teacher or other service provider for their expertise.
- Train your team to teach and lead inclusively. Again, you may need to reach out to other ministry leaders to help train your team. It’s important to develop consistent classroom routines, provide visual schedules, plan for transition times, and learn about various strategies to support children’s social and spiritual development.
- Think across the lifespan. If you have an elementary student with a disability, remember that eventually that child will be in student ministry. Think through how to best minister to adults with disabilities as well. When you have whole-church events and programs, plan for your program to be accessible to all people.
- Learn to communicate well. Use first names and learn preferred terminology. Ask families how they’d like to be involved and what their previous experiences have been. Ask how you can best support their family. Communicate value and love to those you encounter. You never know the effort it took to just arrive at church.
The key to supporting people with disabilities at church is developing relationships over programming. Look people in the eyes, and tell them you’re glad they came to church today. Be humble enough to admit that you don’t know all the answers but you want to be a support. Ask what families need, and presume competence in people with disabilities. Most of all, do all you can to let people know they are valued and a vital part of your church body.