A basic need for humanity is a sense of belonging to something, such as a family, a group, or even better, a community. Our faith communities are supposed to be a community that invites persons of all abilities and all ages to come and worship together.
There is a Latin word, communitas, which means an unstructured community in which people are equal. I believe this is what church attempts to be, but fails, particularly for those within the disability community.
The reality is that memberships in faith communities are declining, and there is no sign of this trend reversing itself. Perhaps the trend is increasing because communities, like those with special needs, do not feel welcome.
Many church leaders assume being inclusive means opening the doors of the building, maybe host an attractional event, or offer improved “programming” for different ages. Some try improved graphics and marketing, but it comes from a perspective that does not understand how to approach the special needs community.
Reach Beyond Assumptions
The issue is much more complicated than it appears. 90% of people who are a part of the special needs population do not attend church. In my conversations with the community I have found the majority, at some point in time, have been personally hurt by the Church.
We need to begin working beyond the assumption that wheelchair ramps and handicapped parking spaces in parking lots make a congregation a welcoming church or the world accepting of those with disabilities. While these are very important and meet a need, they do not create a community that is inclusive of people with varying abilities.
People with disabilities battle many misconceptions. One being they do not understand what is going on around them and need to be spoken over, not to. Our needs are the same as every other human, to be loved and included within a community. Offering separate (segregated) services for special needs families and individuals often intensifies the feeling of segregation and isolation. We yearn to be included.
Including people of all abilities within one service brings all of God’s creation into one place. One would be surprised at how much the disability community does understand when they are present in church worship and groups. It leads them on a path toward healthy spiritual growth and sense of self as part of a community.
Inclusion in Worship
The first step is to offer an inclusive approach within the context of worship. Offer a church service that is accessible to all people of all abilities. What does this look like? It means:
- Having an American Sign Language interpreter present for those with hearing disabilities
- Installing a loop system to help those with hearing aids
- Having actors act out the scripture being read to assist with interpreting scripture
- Including cutouts in the pews for those with wheelchairs
- Ensuring bulletins should have pictures to assist those with intellectual disabilities
- Ensure families are supported while in worship
Include those who are disabled in leading worship.
- Make the special needs community a visual part of your congregation
- Ensure the task matches their ability and God-given talents, just as you would any member of the Church
Communitas cannot be present unless each person is valued and given the opportunity to contribute in his or her own way. Why is there such an insistence on structure within our orders of worship? What happens if someone shouts and becomes “disruptive,” possibly upsetting the structure? What has more meaning? The flow of your worship plans or the plans of the Holy Spirit working through each person? Take a moment to pause and breathe. People express themselves in different ways and this is a part of being a truly welcoming community of faith.
In other words, communitas that includes the disability community would alive and present. By building communitas within your faith community you are also educating those without a disability by opening their eyes and hearts in a way that is very Christ-like.
Let’s invite persons of all abilities to come and join us at the table of fellowship. Ultimately, let us show the world what communitas looks like and provide every person with a sense of belonging.
Together, we can reach out and be the Church we were meant to be. Who knows, maybe a few of the millions of people with disabilities may choose your faith community to attend.