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The Preview: Disabilities

Faith communities: Making sure everyone feels welcomed

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Invite everyone in your congregation to complete this Congregational Outreach Survey

Dr. Erik W. Carter is an Assistant Professor with the University of Wisconsin–Madison's Department of Rehabilitation Psychology and Special Education. He specializes in effective strategies for including children and youth with developmental disabilities more fully and meaningfully in schools and communities. In his new book, Including People with Disabilities in Faith Communities: A Guide for Service Providers, Families, and Congregations, he offers practical guidance* on how to become a responsive congregation:

Is your congregation a place of welcome and belonging for children and adults with developmental disabilities and their families?

When asked this question, most people would offer a response along the lines of “Of course! At least ... I think so.” Yet, many congregations do not count people with developmental disabilities and their families among their members.

Even when present, people with disabilities are often found only on the periphery of congregational life. The architectural, attitudinal, programmatic, and other barriers that may push people away from your congregation are not insurmountable, but they will not disappear without intentional efforts.

Here are steps congregations can take to reach out to people with disabilities and their families. They will equip you to become more responsive to the people already associated with your congregation and, as you improve your capacity to welcome people, inspire you to begin reaching out to the broader community:

Conduct a Congregational Outreach Survey [see above]. The purpose of the survey is to identify existing needs and potential partners within your congregation, so invite input from as many members of your congregation as possible. Distribute surveys in bulletins, include them in mailings, and display them in a prominent place in the congregation’s foyer, hallways, or fellowship areas. Your efforts to keep abreast of needs should be ongoing, rather than limited to a one-time effort.

Have the faith leader set an example. A simple acknowledgement from the pulpit—whether through an announcement, prayer, sermon, or special message—that people with disabilities are absolutely integral to the mission of the congregation can have a profound impact, breaking the silence that often exists in congregations around disabilities.

Write an article in your weekly bulletin or newsletter describing your ongoing efforts to welcome and support children and adults with disabilities as well as their families. Provide a point of contact through which people can obtain additional information.

Develop a brochure or flyer that describes the ways in which adults and children with disabilities and their families are contributing to congregational life. Place this information in key locations throughout your building, such as in the lobby and outside of classrooms used for nursery and children’s activities.

Create a bulletin board or other display that describes some of the needs of people with disabilities in your community and avenues through which congregation members can respond to these needs.

Talk with leaders of other ministry and outreach efforts to learn about people with disabilities in your congregation. For example, congregational care team members, Meals on Wheels volunteers, or a parish nurse might be aware of adults and children with disabilities and their families.

If you discover that few, if any, people with developmental disabilities and their families are involved in your congregation, ask yourself why this might be the case. Have they never heard of your congregation? Did they attend your services at one time, but left feeling unwelcome? Perhaps your congregation had little to offer them or was unable to find a way to meet their particular needs?

Outreach efforts into the greater community

Outreach efforts to community members with disabilities may have to be more deliberate than those commonly used. Passive efforts such as advertisements, outdoor signs, newspaper articles, and web sites may work for some parents of children with disabilities, but they often are inaccessible and ineffective avenues for reaching adults with disabilities. Consider the following ideas for extending invitations:

  • Make it personal. There is considerable difference between an announcement and an invitation. Encourage members to personally ask people with disabilities from their neighborhoods and workplaces if they would be interested in visiting your congregation.

  • Be explicit. Because many people with disabilities and their families have experienced a history of passive nonresponse or overt exclusion, you may need to be much more specific about who your congregations means by all (as in, "Our congregation desires to welcome all members of our community, including people with disabilities and their families").

  • Contact service, support, and advocacy organizations. Many agencies and organizations offer resources and supports to people with disabilities in your community. Develop relationships with these organizations, making sure they are aware of the efforts your congregation is making.

  • Inform residential providers. Make sure that staff members working in group homes and other residential programs are aware of your efforts to involve people with disabilities in your community. Provide information about your congregation’s programs and activities, as well as the types of support you are able to offer.

  • Design welcoming outreach materials. Ask self-advocates (people with
    developmental disabilities who speak on their own behalf), family members, and advocacy organizations to provide feedback on the extent to which your outreach materials convey welcome. Include information about the supports you offer, as well as images of people with disabilities or accessibility symbols in your newsletters; print, radio, and television ads; and on your congregation’s web site.

  • Let your denomination know. If your congregation is affiliated with a larger denomination or faith group, inform your regional and national offices of how you are including people with developmental disabilities and the steps you are taking to deepen and broaden your response. In addition, contact local congregational networks to share your efforts.

  • Connect with other congregations. Share your commitment with others in your community. Congregations that are inaccessible or that feel unequipped to support a person in their congregation should, at a minimum, be able to offer connections with another local congregation that is ready to welcome him or her.

  • Rely on current congregational members to spread the word. Too few congregations are responding in this area, and many families will be attracted to a congregation that is making even small, but intentional efforts. Expect families to be among the most vocal proponents of your efforts.

  • Connect with new families. Make sure that information about your congregation is included in welcome packet materials distributed by local businesses, neighborhood associations, or chambers of commerce. Many local disability-related organizations and agencies compile informational packs for new families that describe the services and supports available in a community.

  • Hold an outreach event. Some congregations plan outreach events specifically for people with disabilities and their families, caregivers, and other support providers. Examples might include an open house, spaghetti supper, potluck dinner, monthly social, special worship service, or evening fellowship. Be sure such activities serve as an entry point into the rest of congregational life, rather than as a permanent, separate ministry.

*Adapted from Including People with Disabilities in Faith Communities: A Guide for Service Providers, Families, and Congregations by Erik W. Carter.

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