By Michael Woods-
It has only been for the past twenty-two years that people with disabilities have been guaranteed fundamental civil rights in our country through the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). True, it's only been within the past century that women and other minorities have been assured of those rights as well. And of course we all know how often those rights are denied or ignored, and that there are groups in America who have yet to be legally given such basic rights at all. But seriously, twenty-two years ago many people with disabilities could not physically enter most buildings, ride public transportation, attend mainstream schools, or were denied a job simply because they used a wheelchair.
And being in the church world, most of the comments that I heard about the ADA were negative. Now I understand that churches often don't have a lot of money, and to add another few hundred thousand onto a renovation budget to be ADA-compliant is difficult. A church I was at once attempted to renovate their sanctuary to fit in more seating, but in the end we lost seats because of the ramp we had to put in to make the stage accessible. It was hard-and forced the church to rethink where the money was to be spent, which of course led to some choice words being said about the "liberal nonsense of the ADA." But in truth, I had to wonder why the church wasn't the one out there doing whatever they could to include the disabled – even without being forced to by law. Jesus went out of his way to be with the disabled in his society; the church could at least do the same.
For communities of faith, the Americans with Disabilities Act should be an example of people getting around to doing what God told them to do a long time ago! Your local church, synagogue, or place where you worship 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." Today, there is a small number of communities of faith that are doing a great job of opening their doors and being a place of inclusion of those who have the label "disabled."
Any given week, millions of people gather together with family, friends, neighbors, and strangers in a local church, synagogue, mosque, or temple. However, the overall responsiveness of communities of faith has been less than resounding; the call to be more inclusive remains largely unanswered.
In 2004 a survey of 200 parents of children with autism who did attend a community of faith regularly revealed that only 11% of those children attended a social event outside of Sunday school in their religious setting. Most, not all, children with developmental disabilities did not attend youth group, confirmation, VBS, worship service, or many other social church get-togethers. In 2005, a survey of Christian, Jewish, and Muslim congregations revealed that 71% of congregations had a general awareness of barriers, both architectural and attitudinal, to the participation of people with disabilities in their places of worship. However, 69% of those congregations shared that they had not done anything to remove those barriers!
For many, being a part of a community of faith generally makes people feel better about themselves...it gives more purpose to their lives, and most importantly it lays the foundation for people to develop their God-given potential. It's essential to find ways to make room for people with disabilities 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.
I like Joni Erickson Tada's comment on a passage from the Holy Scriptures that says, "In Him the whole building is joined together and becomes a holy temple..." She asks, "In your community of faith are people affected with disabilities part of the building blocks of your congregation?" "Are they simply present in your sanctuary or the Sunday School classroom, but very isolated from all of the other interactions and relationships that give life to your church? The well-noted point here is that inclusion is about much more than a location. Or as Erik Carter stated, "There is a difference between proximity and participation." There is a difference between being present and having a presence.
Welcoming a person with a disability into a community of faith should not be limited to only that moment when someone enters through the door of your building. Instead, it should be an ongoing process whereby a person is initially welcomed, is being welcomed, and will always be welcomed. That is the difference between being present and having a presence.
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 can you do to ensure that the word "inclusion" doesn't slowly morph into being more about proximity rather than participation? The answer? Ask questions.
I was an officer in the United States Marines for 21-years. The Marines, like any other top-level organization constantly evaluate themselves to answer the question of "How can we be better? What do we need to improve upon to be considered the finest military organization in the world?" Now I may be a little biased, but truthfully, the Marine Corps has one of the finest reputations among the fighting forces throughout the world. Shouldn't our churches, our congregations, or any community of faith have the reputation as the most welcoming place in the world...the most caring place in the world...the most loving place in the world? I think so, and I'll bet that you do, too.
So what is a good first step? It all starts with a simple assessment. Assessments can be useful tools for reflecting on how you are 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 Community of Faith Welcome Assessment (CFWA) helps a community of faith to examine where people with special needs and their families are currently participating in the life of your faith community, and the barriers that may hinder their involvement in other aspects of congregational life. The CFWA is a tool for prayerful self-reflection. There are several ways that you could use it: for a small community of faith it might be completed by the pastor, a special needs volunteer, or a small group of members. A larger community of faith might form a team represented by both leadership and laity. If possible, in both cases you would want to attempt to include at least one person on your team with a disability and/or a parent of a person with a disability to get their perspective.
After reviewing the findings the team can begin to prioritize the steps needed to make their community of faith more welcoming. Then you would want to develop a plan of action along with a timeline to revisit the progress that is being made.
A welcoming community of faith is more than a location where people show up but never truly become part of the life of the church. A welcoming congregation makes room for everyone, to include those with labels, to participate, serve, and share their lives with other members. Becoming a welcoming community of faith that includes people with disabilities and their families requires continuous commitment to reach out and have an impact on the lives of everyone who attends.
Can we reasonably have a dream, like Martin Luther King, of a world where people, whatever their race, religion, culture, abilities or disabilities, can find a place and reveal their gifts? Can we hope for a community of faith whose metaphor is not a pyramid but a community, and where each of us is a vital part in the harmony and function of the whole? I think you'll agree that we can. A great first step to take toward that reality is assessing where your community of faith is today and where it needs to be tomorrow in order to be a place of welcome and inclusion.
Mike received his Masters Degree in Conflict Management from Trinity College and Theological Seminary. He is a certified Crisis Prevention Instructor. Michael is the Director of the Special Friends Ministry at First Baptist of Orlando, one of the largest churches in Central Florida. Before coming to Orlando Mike worked for the largest school district in St. Louis as an Autism and Inclusion Specialist and is a Board Certified Associate Behavior Analyst. Prior to joining Rockwood, he served as a Master Training Specialist for the Judevine Center for Autism and as an Early Interventionist for the Missouri First Steps Program. He also taught continuing education courses on autism at Coastal Carolina College in North Carolina.
Mike has conducted workshops for a variety of churches, several national level autism conferences, and various annual state conferences.
Mike is happily married and the father of three boys, triplets, each on the autism spectrum. He knows firsthand the struggles and victories associated with autism and sensory challenges. Mike works in the field of autism as an Autism and Inclusion Specialist. He also conducts workshops and training in special needs ministry.