Structural accommodations... provide access to our churches,
Relationships... bring people back to church,
Having a role to play... keeps people engaged.
12.6 percent of the US population lives with a disability1 but few churches reflect this proportion. Tragically, it’s no secret that people with disabilities are under-represented in religious circles. Throughout the gospels we read about Jesus gathering together the poor and the rich, the sick and well, men and women, young and old, and people with all varieties of abilities and disabilities. Why don’t our churches reflect this diversity?
When thinking about the places you visit frequently, the grocery store, doctor’s office, neighborhood library, or place of employment, what makes you choose to return to these places over and over again? Maybe it’s good service, a welcoming environment, a feeling of being part of a team. Our long term commitments are grounded in the people we connect with, and the quality of our relationships. It’s the relationships we build with others that make us feel connected to both people and places.
We’ve all been created with a need to belong, connect, and contribute. We identify ourselves by the roles we play in society: mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, friends, employees, supervisors, neighbors, artists, engineers, and athletes. Any setting in which we fill a needed role becomes a part of who we are. Our families, our work, our neighborhoods, all meet our need for belonging because in those spaces we find identity and a place of importance. In other words, the roles we play create a sense of agency that then meets our need for belonging. We feel included when we have a purpose to fulfill.
Perhaps this is the reason why people with disabilities are under-represented in religious circles. Because, is the church actually doing enough to provide meaningful roles for folks with disabilities? Is the church actually doing enough to provide meaningful roles for folks with disabilities? Is their identity being formed and shaped by the church? Too often the answer to this is “Not well enough.”
Creating a place to belong goes beyond structural accessibility. It’s about facilitating meaningful relationships in an environment where people feel part of something bigger than themselves. Here are a few suggestions on how to help people with disabilities and their families feel more connected to our churches:
Reach out and get to know these families. People need to know that someone noticed when they weren’t in church and that someone cared enough to check on them during the week. Call, visit, or write a note. Greeting people Sunday morning and forgetting about them the rest of the week does not create a sense of belonging. Get to know who they are as individuals, who’s part of their support system, how they spend their day, where they go on holidays. You might just realize that you both have more in common than you think.
Ask, don’t assume. We often do damage in assuming that we’re doing “the right thing” for others when we choose outcomes without their input. Especially because people often assume incompetence in people with disabilities. If you are to assume anything, assume that people with disabilities are competent and resilient… then ask them how you can support them in being that. Often, the assumptions we make about people with disabilities are embedded in a deeper belief that people with disabilities are weak and powerless. This wrong stigma fosters the untruth that people with disabilities are unimportant to our church life. When we assume competence we’ll see people as gifted members able to contribute to the ministries of our churches.
Structural accommodations provide access to our churches,
Relationships bring people back to church,
Having a role to play keeps people engaged.
It’s true for everyone: we want people to know us for who we are and to value our skills and gifts. Extend belonging in your church by engaging the gifts that people with disabilities have to share.