“It’s Sunday!” Darryl jubilantly exclaimed proudly wearing his favorite suit and tie. “I’m on my way to church to be an usher!” Mary-Ann, his housemate, was also excited, but for a different reason: “time to go to church so I can pray for everyone” she beamed. I lived with Darryl and Mary-Ann in an intentional community called L’Arche when I was 22. They were my first experience of adults with developmental disabilities and truly taught me the need for the church to become more accessible for all people.
I grew up in the church, yet sadly, had limited opportunities to interact with those who have a disability. I only remember one young man with autism in his early twenties who attended my Sunday school class although I was 12 at the time. He did not say much, so he was relatively left alone by the other classmates. Years later, I now find myself surveying all the churches I visit and asking myself “are there people here who have a disability and if not, why not?” It seems that few churches have structures in place to provide a meaningful worship context for those who do not fit the image of an average church goer. Yet, it is not difficult at all to create spaces of active involvement in congregational life for everyone including people with disabilities.
Experts often say that communication includes both spoken language and non-verbal cues. The same is true when we consider how to react and relate to those who are different than us. Oftentimes, people who are unfamiliar with the disability world, may be unsure how to include this person. The worst possible thing you can do is ignore the person; a close second is to speak directly only to their parent or caregiver.
Everyone has the same human needs and longings. Everyone wants to be interacted with and noticed. Even a simple smile and greeting can go a long way. There are also many ways to include someone with a disability in more prominent roles depending on their abilities and interests: ushering, greeting, singing in the choir, and even reading Scripture are just a few examples.
It is of utmost importance for churches to no treat adults with disabilities as if they are children. This means finding a suitable Bible class rather than squishing them into a children’s Sunday school. Hopefully this sounds like common sense, but you would be surprised at how often this fails to occur. Every adult has the right to be treated with dignity and respect, not patronized. Plus, you may be surprised at just how much you can glean from someone with a disability who may offer profound spiritual insights you never considered before.
The church represents the Body of Christ and has the important responsibility of including all people. When we make this happen, we will not be disappointed because we will see how the Kingdom of God is being built up right in our very midst.
Deborah-Ruth Ferber holds a master’s of divinity and Bachelor’s of Religious Education from Tyndale University College and Seminary as well as a graduate diploma in Peace & Theological studies from Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary. Deborah has spent the past three years serving with the L’Arche movement in both Canada and Scotland and is a field associate with the Anabaptist Disability Network. Her work includes an eclectic mix of passion, deep love, and laughter as she forms friendships with many who have various forms of developmental disabilities. When Deborah is not musing about peace or acting nerdy, she is usually off shamelessly drinking copious amounts of tea at one of Edinburgh’s many great cafes!