The Americans with Disabilities Act which was signed into law back in July of 1990 established a national mandate to protect persons with special needs from discrimination and other social injustices.
As a result, we saw a change began to take place in our public school systems where every child with a special need began to be entitled to receive the same education right alongside their peers that were labeled non-disabled. The ADA has also had a big influence on a shift to more inclusive neighborhoods for people with disabilities and a shift away from segregated residential facilities. Not that long ago a meaningful job wasn’t always considered a realistic opportunity for a person with an intellectual disability. But I’m happy to say that the workplace, like community and educational settings, is becoming more inclusive too.
Friends, your church is in a prime position to model the spirit of the ADA or more importantly, model the example of what the Holy Scriptures remind us to do…”Treat others as you would want them to treat you.” I’m here to tell you today that some communities of faith are doing a great job of opening their doors and being a place of inclusion. It’s essential to find ways to make room for people with special needs in your community of faith. Why? Because Jesus evoked the inclusion process in His mission statement, He said: “Go ye into all the world and preach the Gospel to every person.” He didn’t add any disclaimer about excluding those who had too little ability, there were no exclusions for those who were physically or intellectually different.
So how do you begin the journey of becoming a community of faith where you welcome and make room for the participation of people with disabilities, a place where everyone has a presence rather than just being physically present, a community of faith that ensures that everyone participates in sharing their life and not simply sharing space? What is a good first step? Well, it all starts with a simple assessment.
Assessments can be useful tools for reflecting on how are you doing or in this case “How welcoming of a community of faith are we?” Assessments help you to take an objective look at the areas where you are strong, but they can also reveal the areas that need improvement. As a community of faith we are called to be a people of change…not a people of status quo, a stagnant non-growing body of believers but a people who are striving to grow, to become more tomorrow than who we are today.
The Church Welcome Assessment is a tool for prayerful self-reflection. It can help to answer the question, “How welcoming are you?”
It’s common for everyone to experience anxiety and stress when dealing with new changes or new routines. As adults we know this. However, for children with special needs such as autism, changes or new routines can result in significant stress and anxiety. At this point, the child’s ability to communicate may be significantly reduced thus causing him/her to have a “meltdown.”
In addition, children with autism can have difficulty regulating their emotions and stress levels. Therefore, these children benefit from specific, tailored strategies to help them cope and regulate their emotional state. The Safe Spot is one such strategy that should be considered by your special needs ministry team. The Safe Spot allows children with autism to:
- take a break from a stressful situation
- regain emotional control to avoid a meltdown
- recover after a meltdown
A Safe Spot is any specified location in your church (parent’s can also use this concept at home!) where a child with special needs feels safe, comfortable, and decreases the child’s internal stress so that s/he can calm down.
Here’s a quick 12-minute video for special needs ministry staff on how to develop a Safe Spot:
Have you ever kicked yourself in the seat of the pants, because you missed a golden opportunity? I think all of us can relate here!
1. We missed an opportunity to make a positive difference in someone’s life.
2. We missed an opportunity to be a blessing to someone who was hurting.
3. We missed an opportunity to witness to a lost friend.
4. We missed an opportunity to minister to our spouse or children because we were too preoccupied.
5. We missed an opportunity to make an eternal difference in a child’s life because we didn’t seize the opportunity.
There’s one more potential missed opportunity out there that I’d like to quickly share so that instead of missing this opportunity that God is bringing our way…we seize it.
In two previous posts I’ve referenced a 3 question survey that 136 parents (who have a child with a disability) responded to and the results were:
1. 45% of parents who have a child with a disability indicated that they DO attend church!
2. The remaining 55% of those parents who responded to the survey indicated that they DO NOT attend church.
3. It’s the last survey question that reveals the opportunity: “Would you attend a local church if it were able to meet the needs of your family?”
Of the 55% of parents who indicated that they did not attend church, 96% of them answered “Yes” to the above mentioned survey question. 96%.
There’s a group of parents out there who would definitely be interested in your Children’s Ministry. They represent an opportunity. But don’t expect to “see” them because these families often live very isolated lives due to their child’s disability. A lot of them have given up on finding a place of acceptance. But they’re out there. And 96% of them would say “Yes” to an invitation to become a part of your community of faith.
Most of my friends on my Facebook page are parents of a child with autism or other special need…just like my boys.
Last week I mentioned that I was curious about how many of these families were churched. So I used Survey Monkey to design a 3 question survey and then posted it to my Facebook page. I was surprised to find out that 20% of these families attend a church that does NOT have a special needs ministry.
It became apparent to me that their communities of faith have found a way to be welcoming and inclusive. How? By using a model emphasizing the different ministries within the church that work together for the purpose of welcoming and including a child without having to develop a special needs program!
The question now becomes “How many more families of children with special needs might be reached for Christ by developing a special needs program?”
So, I surveyed my Facebook parents and asked this question: “Do you currently attend a church has a special needs program?”
136 parents responded to this survey question. 25% of them answered “Yes.”
That’s 5% more families who attend a church with a special needs program than those families who attend a church that does not have a special needs program. 5%…doesn’t seem like a big difference, does it?
Is it worth going to thru the effort of developing a special needs ministry to reach an extra 5%? When I think of “biblical math,” I believe the answer is yes: “Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Does she not light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.” (Luke 15:8-9).