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"Everyone Welcome." This message often appears on church signs for Sunday services or events.
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By Haydn Jensen

"Everyone Welcome." This message often appears on church signs for Sunday services or events. It's easy to do when “everyone” looks and acts like the rest of the congregation. However, some people with developmental disabilities or impairments attending church come with certain physical and behavioural traits which often draws attention to them as distinctive individuals who cannot simply blend into the crowd like others can. Congregations (and pastors) may not know how to respond to spontaneous outbursts or unexpected social interactions. The statement "everyone welcome" then becomes a question, and raises the even bigger question: "Everyone comfortable?"

Not everyone knows that in Ontario until only about 8 years ago people with developmental disabilities were typically separated from general society and lived in isolated institutions. When public awareness of rampant abuse and inhumane living conditions in these places eventually led government to close them, those who lived there are now integrated into the regular community through supported living with their families or in neighbourhood group homes staffed by caregivers called Developmental Support Workers or DSW's. If a person with developmental disabilities is unable to go independently to church, you will likely see them with family members or a DSW to support them. People without personal, close family or workplace connection to disability might understandably feel unsure, nervous or afraid to interact, simply because they don't know what to do. Like all of us, people with disabilities want to fit in and be accepted, so as Christians it's fitting for us to encourage and not discourage people from acceptance into our fellowship communities.

The people affected by disabilities really are the experts here--they know better than anyone what it's like when they go to church. So, rather than talking about them, I have invited them into this conversation. Some can speak for themselves and others need help from parents, family, and others who support them to translate their nonverbal expressions into words.

We could use many different labels to talk about the same thing: "developmental disability", "handicapped", "special needs" etc. Sometimes it's helpful to use these terms. Sometimes, however, these labels create a distinction that separates "us" from "them". When the desire is simply to fit in, labels that all basically say “we're different" can pose a powerful psychological and social barrier just like the lack of wheelchair access to a church building can be a physical barrier. Those living with developmental disabilities and advocating for equal citizenship, acceptance, and belonging in the community offer us a challenge: look past the labels and see the person--see what makes us all the same. While there are many with and without disabilities that prefer just to attend church and nothing more, those advocating for people with disabilities encourage us to NOT assume that being disabled means they CAN'T help with something. Here are some stories shared by people affected by disabilities--see if you share similar feelings and values. I have changed names when you see a "*".

Like many believers, Diane* is a committed Christian who loves to be with people of a like-minded faith. She is a kind and thoughtful person who enjoys hearing interesting and informative talks from visiting missionary speakers. Diane uses a power wheelchair, is legally blind, and can live independently here in London with support staff providing personal care. Because of support staff scheduling and difficulties arranging transportation on Sundays, Diane does not attend Sunday service. However, church friends bring her sermons on CD weekly and also meals most days of the week. So, they eat together and have fellowship at her home. She attends mid week events at her church and speaks warmly of the encouragement her church community gives by including her in congregational life.

However, she does admit there are times when she notices others treating her differently. Although her intellectual abilities are completely normal, Diane’s speech flows at a slower pace. She senses that people sometimes avoid talking to her because they think her slower speech means lower intelligence. Diane would like to be part of her church's missions committee, and is simply waiting to be asked. She has also experienced well-intentioned people who think they have to come inches from her face to speak with her, even though her visual impairment in no way requires such invasion into her personal space.

James* is a thirty something adult Londoner living in a group home but often goes with his parents to church. Being nonverbal, James communicates through smiles, chuckles and reaching out to hold a person’s hands or arms. At church James enjoys being with the family and hearing the music--especially the old hymns. The sound of people clapping to the music makes James laugh. A guest speaker who shouts unexpectedly during a message can also make James laugh. Sometime this draws puzzled looks from people nearby, but those who know James understand that this is his way of responding. When chatting socially after church, James’ dad hopes that people can simply act normally by saying hello and not avoid James and the family altogether.

As a teen, Stephen* initially relied on a sibling to help him navigate youth group because learning impairments also affected his abilities to interpret and process social interactions appropriately. When that sibling was later unavailable to assist, his stepmom noticed Stephen gravitating towards a few in the group who also had learning disabilities. This became a concern when she observed that other youth group kids tended to pick on those kids. She didn't want her stepson subjected to that. At 20 years old, Stephen now only very occasionally attends church and his social world is shrinking.

I asked Stephen's stepmom what she wished could have happened. She said she and her husband would have liked pastoral leaders and others in the church to take more initiative and ask how they could support Stephen and his family, instead of letting them drift away from the church. As it was, the parents were the ones who had to knock on doors. When they did, they felt their needs were heard only begrudgingly. True, working on positive responses to these difficulties requires effort from the entire community. Parenting is challenging enough with healthy children, so parents of children with disabilities could use a bit more proactive support from churches. Dialogue is usually a great starting point.

For children with disabilities, the entire family is impacted. Gillian Marchenko is a former overseas missionary, a pastor’s wife, and mother of four children--two of which are affected by Down syndrome. Gillian advocates for those with special needs through writing and public speaking. On her website she shares these stories from parents:

My son was 4 and not yet fully toilet trained. A church volunteer who was unfamiliar with my son told me he couldn't be checked in to Sunday School because he wasn't toilet trained. It was Easter weekend so the line to check in was long and other parents were waiting behind me. I felt so embarrassed and hurt that we left the building and haven't been back. That was two years ago. Just thinking about going to church makes me panic.

I worry he will disturb people, and to be honest I don't like the looks I get from people. I have gotten the angry look, shhh’ed, and the pity look. The last one is the one that hurts the most - my son is a gift, not one to be pitied.

Our church rallied around us when we were pregnant with our child with Down syndrome but since we had him, it has been one saddening experience after the next, mainly because the volunteers are spread thin and uneducated in acceptance and inclusion… One time our child was put in a plastic bin in the corner for children’s church while the rest of the kids learned about Jesus.

These stories are painful to hear, but I share them only to sharpen our sensitivity and resolve to truly welcome and include everyone into our church community.

On her website, Gillian also shares some excellent tips on “how to greet my child who is nonverbal” and many of these apply to adults with disabilities as well. Here's a sample:
  • Welcome ALL of us. Attempt to make eye contact with me, my husband, and my children, even the daughter who will not make eye contact with you. This says, 'I see you. I'm glad you are here.'
  • Follow our lead. If we talk about [our daughter's] special needs, then feel free to ask questions to learn more about the dynamics of our family.
  • Don't assume she doesn't understand you or what is going on because she does not speak. My daughter picks up way more socially than you would imagine. Also, ask if she is utilizing another form of communication such as sign language or pictures.

As with all people at church, we don’t always get it wrong and we don't always get it right. We all know that everyone is unique--this is particularly true for those with developmental disabilities. It takes time and polite inquiry to understand better. We honour how God in how He's made those affected by disability when we resist generalizations, assumptions and uniform expectations. Sitting as quietly as possible may be different for different people. The label "disabled" doesn't mean "can't do anything". Nonverbal people very often do enjoy interaction with others. Extra effort, patience and a little creative ingenuity goes a long way--but the rewards are immense.

For more information, here are some resources: