Disabilities are incredibly common. Disabilities affect people of all racial, ethnic, economic, and family backgrounds. Yet despite these widespread effects, it’s not uncommon for churches to find themselves unprepared to integrate children with disabilities into their children’s ministries.
Part of the problem stems from the incredible diversity of disabilities. Intellectual and learning disabilities, visual, hearing, speech or language impairments, emotional disturbances, autism, and traumatic brain injuries—all these disabilities require different strategies for full inclusion. Another part of the problem is the cultural stigma attached to disabilities. Because of the long history of segregating people with disabilities in America, a social stigma lingers and many people are afraid to talk about disability for fear of accidentally offending someone.
For churches striving to love and fully include all of God’s children, these challenges can feel insurmountable. But there are some guidelines that can help churches wherever they are on their journey to welcome children with disabilities. These suggestions, coupled with love and patience, can help your church become a more welcoming place for everyone!
Remember that children with disabilities are fully human and loved by God as they are. There is no need for children to receive a physiological cure for them to receive the spiritual healing that comes from being fully incorporated into a loving Christian community. While physiological cures are often desired and life-changing when made possible, not every person with a disability desires or expects a physiological cure. What people do universally desire is love, care, and acceptance as they are.
It’s helpful to speak frankly and simply about a child’s disabilities. Pretending disabilities don’t exist can communicate that there is something wrong or bad about having a disability. Able-bodied children meeting a classmate with a disability for the first time can benefit from a “Buddy Talk.” To prepare for a Buddy Talk, meet with the disabled child’s guardian and the child as well, if appropriate. Discuss what would be helpful to share with the other children about the child’s disability. Bits of age-appropriate information helps children welcome and show love to their classmates. If the child and guardian feel comfortable, offer to communicate this information with the other children’s guardians as well.
In some cases, it’s possible to fully incorporate children with disabilities by modifying the activities in a small way. For example, if a child is unable to sit on the floor, you may choose to have the group sit in chairs for storytime. In other cases, it’s helpful to assign a Buddy, either another adult or an older child. The child’s Buddy is there to help the child participate fully. Buddies should be trained in advance, and if the Buddy is an older child, the Buddy’s guardian(s) should be informed and included in any training.
If a child with a disability is having trouble integrating socially, it’s possible to assign a group of children “welcomers” whose job it is to make sure children with disabilities are included in group activities. This role can be very empowering and beneficial for children.