Rethinking “Disability” in the Church

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Every church can and should be intentional about becoming more welcoming to families who have kids with disabilities.

Even though I am free of the demands and expectations of everyone, I have voluntarily become a servant to any and all in order to reach a wide range of people: religious, nonreligious, meticulous moralists, loose-living immoralists, the defeated, the demoralized—whoever. I didn’t take on their way of life. I kept my bearings in Christ—but I entered their world and tried to experience things from their point of view. I’ve become just about every sort of servant there is in my attempts to lead those I meet into a God-saved life. I did all this because of the Message. I didn’t just want to talk about it; I wanted to be in on it! 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 (MSG)

The apostle Paul was incredibly passionate about wanting to share the Gospel with everyone he encountered. He was willing to do whatever it took to tell people about Jesus…including repeat visits to cities where the people attempted to kill him. We’ll come back to Paul’s example later…

I came across an interesting article on the Forbes Magazine website illustrating a shift in the way many in society are understanding the concept of disability. The article is largely taken from an interview with Dan O’Connor of the Berman Institute of Bioethics at Johns Hopkins University, following a U.S. Department of Justice ruling that a Massachusetts university is required under the Americans With Disabilities Act to provide gluten-free meals to students with celiac disease, who have no choice in purchasing the university’s meal plan.

Here are two quotes from Dr. O’Connor that help illustrate the paradigm shift in how some are viewing disability…and the opportunities and challenges the new thinking presents to those serving in the disability ministry movement:

“One school of thought,” he says, “is that it’s your body that’s disabled you. If you can’t walk and use a wheelchair, it’s your legs that disable you, for example. But the newer thinking is that it’s not your body that disables you, it’s the environment around you.” For example, an environment full of stairs is actually what disables a person in a wheelchair. “That’s a much more interesting way to look at disability,” he adds. “So the onus isn’t on the ‘disabled’ person, it’s on the environment and on all of us.”

On behalf of our team at Key Ministry, I’ve made the argument on many occasions that the greatest barrier to inclusion of kids with emotional, behavioral and developmental disorders (what we’ve referred to as “hidden disabilities”) and their families at church involves the challenges presented by the environments in which we do ministry. Some common examples would include…

  • The child with sensory processing issues expected to participate in high-energy children’s ministry large group worship with bright lights and loud music.
  • The child with ADHD expected to sit still for an extended period of time in uncomfortable clothes and seating through worship services designed for adults.
  • The self-conscious teen who struggles to pick up on social cues who becomes resistant to attending large group worship or participate in small groups in the homes of unfamiliar peers and adults.
  • The middle schooler with separation anxiety who misses out on all the overnight retreats and mission trips.

The church has an opportunity to rethink our paradigm of how we minister to kids and families with disabilities. We can consider how we might create ministry environments where kids with “neurodiversity” can thrive as they learn about Jesus, come to faith in Him and grow in faith in Him.

This doesn’t mean we turn our back on the proven methods and strategies for supporting families impacted by disabilities. Our movement is incomplete without both the traditional and evolving service paradigms for “doing” inclusive disability ministry. In this way, we can avoid one of the challenges Dr. O’Connor identified for the disability community…

“What you may find is an interesting division between people ‘traditionally disabled’ – who are blind, or in wheelchairs, for instance, who’ve fought long and hard for these rights, and whose disabilities interact with them every day – and those who are ‘disabled in other, ‘newer’ ways. They may become vexed with people trying to get particular part of their life made easier. Who’s really disabled? The traditionally disabled may worry that political gains they’ve made will be left behind.”

It’s not an either-or for the church…it’s both. Just as the church has many members with unique gifts and talents and abilities, individual churches will have programs and environments that will be more appealing to some families than others. Allow me to share two general principles that would help us collectively as a movement to become like Paul in “becoming a servant to any and all”…

No church will be able to develop a special needs/disability ministry or create ministry environments that will be ideal for every child and every family with every imaginable disability.

Every church can and should be intentional about doing something to become more welcoming and inclusive to families of kids with disabilities.

Accomplishing this goal will not be easy. Every congregation has a contingent of people who are adamant about doing church “the way we’ve always done it.” Any attempt to change ministry environments will be met with resistance (think about how worked up folks get about the music at church!) and has to be done in a way that our environments continue to appeal to kids and families who are “neurotypical.” Most importantly, our ministry environments need to fulfill their primary purpose… helping kids and parents to come to know Christ and to grow in Christ.

I’m encouraged that God is at work here…because we clearly can’t do this in our limited wisdom and strength. But we can look forward to God working through the circumstances to hasten the day when there will truly be a church for every child.

Dr. Steve Grcevich is a physician specializing in child and adolescent psychiatry who serves as President and Founder of Key Ministry. He blogs at church4everychild.org and may be reached at steve@keyministry.org.


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