A Journey to Belonging: Including Persons with Disabilities in Faith Communities


Part 2 in a 3-part series on inclusion

Rev. Stacey Harwell-Dye

With Excerpts from Including People with Disabilities in Faith Communities by Erik W. Carter

In the last article we talked about barriers to full participation in our churches for people with disabilities. We talked about both physical barriers, like lack of ramps and bathrooms, and attitudinal barriers. This article is going to talk about how we can get folks active in the life of the church.

The first and most important lesson I’ve learned from doing work with folks on the margins is this: make sure people in the margins are in visible leadership positions and are heard. There are a few ways to do this: when reviewing lists of folks to possibly nominate for roles on your most important committees, think to yourself, “Am I including everyone in my congregation?” “Is there a place where ___ (person with a disability) can use their gifts to contribute to the work of God in this local church?”

Children’s Sunday school is another place where full inclusion is not only possible but life giving. At Centenary we’ve been blessed to have kids with autism joining us for Sunday school. The lessons are slightly modified (we use One Room Sunday School material from Grow, Proclaim, Serve), but for the most part, everything stays the same. What I love best is that kids are getting to know one another as kids, not just as kids with disabilities. They are getting to be friends and finding out how to best support one another. I can only imagine that being around kids who are different from them will help them in their adult lives. If it’s normalized when they are young, they will notice something’s wrong when adults with disabilities aren’t at the table later.

We use an information form that all families with children at Centenary have to fill out. We got it from Dr. Carter’s book, referenced above. These forms ask specifically for information from the parents about how their child learns and communicates. It also asks about behavioral challenges and how the teacher should respond to maintain consistency with what is taught at home. Dr. Carter also suggests assigning faith friends for folks with disabilities who can act as assistants when necessary, but in general can stay aware of what the church can do to be more inclusive.

Including all persons with disabilities can happen most naturally in worship. People with disabilities are often overlooked to be readers, acolytes, ushers, or musicians. Sometimes a few modifications may be necessary, such as giving someone a handheld mic to use from the front of the church if they are in a chair and can’t access a pulpit that’s up a few steps. The important thing here is to make sure that the activity is age appropriate. If children are traditionally the acolytes in your congregation, do not ask an adult with a disability to be an acolyte. Find the gifts of all persons in your congregations (I can send you a sample gift survey if you are interested) and make sure that when you worship God, all people of God have a place in the order of worship.

At the end of the day, let me say this: it doesn’t take a load of special training, it doesn’t take thousands of dollars, and it doesn’t take a separate special needs ministry to include folks in worship. What it takes is a willing spirit, a hospitable congregation, and a staff of children and adult teachers for Sunday school who are willing to figure out what supports people need to make full inclusion possible. Any size church can do this. Need advice? Listen to the parents of children with disabilities. Find the gifts of all people and then live into the fullness that is the diversity of the kingdom of God here on earth!

Interacting with people with developmental disabilities:

  • Hospitality begins with a simple “hello.” A warm greeting and hearty handshake require no special training and should be dispensed generously.
  • Many people are unsure of exactly what terminology to use when talking about people with disabilities. Refer to people as you wish them to refer to you – by name.
  • Adults with developmental disabilities are first and foremost adults. Do not interact with them as you would with a child. Avoid being condescending in your speech or tone.
  • Always look at and speak directly to a person with disabilities, rather than interacting through the family member, caregiver, or companion who is accompanying the person.
  • Greet people with disabilities as you would anyone else, even if they aren’t able to communicate verbally or interact in typical ways. Do not assume that they cannot understand you.
  • Grant every person the opportunity to do as much for themselves as possible. Ask a person if he or she would like assistance with a task, but wait until your offer is accepted before providing any help.
Rev. Stacey Harwell-Dye is a deacon serving as the Minister of Community Building at Centenary United Methodist Church, a church working on figuring out how best to welcome all of God's people into worship, fellowship, and service. stacey@centenarymacon.org.