As the disability advocate for Waterford Mennonite Church, I was always watching the service to see how we can make it more inclusive. One thing I noticed is we had several attenders that were noise sensitive. For example, when people clapped or laughed, this bothered them. I was trying to think of ways we could do these things in church without hurting people’s ears. One child, JoLee, had to leave the sanctuary because she could not handle the noise. This really bothered me, because she had a right to be in worship like everyone else.
An important factor in helping a church become more inclusive is to be in constant communication with the parents of people with disabilities or the people themselves. In this case, I asked JoLee’s parents what would be helpful for us as a church to do so she could sit through the service and worship with the rest of us. They suggested that we clap using sign language instead. I started to clap in sign language during the worship service myself and the parents began to do it also. I also talked to the church about doing this and showed them what it looks like. Other people began to clap this way. It took a while for the whole congregation to begin clapping in sign language. Now this is the way we all clap. It would have been really easy to give up on this, believing that the congregation would not be able to switch, but we didn’t give up, and slowly it happened.
JoLee also struggled in Sunday school. I began to explore with the parents, the teacher of the class, and the children’s ministry team, to figure out what we could do to help her be able to participate. We decided to have someone accompany her at all times during Sunday school. This was helpful, although having a different person every year with a different style made it difficult. As she got older and the gap became wider with her peers, we needed to change our plan. I began to look at the curriculum and set-up of the class to see how we could adapt. I went into the classroom with her to see the teacher in action and see what things worked and what needed to be adapted. I also created a schedule for JoLee and a place where she could go and sit apart from other people if she needed to rest. We then searched for an adult that would be willing to be JoLee’s assistant. When Lorene volunteered, I helped her understand both the needs and expectations. I walked her through the first few classes to see how things went. It was important to find an assistant that was just the right fit for JoLee.
Lorene stepped up and agreed to help and has now been JoLee’s helper and mentor for three years. Their relationship has grown and Lorene accompanies JoLee at children’s time and different church events, as well as leaving with her to do something else if that seems best. When speaking with JoLee’s mom, she said that this has been the one of the best things that has happened for them. Both she and her husband have been able to participate in events with the confidence that JoLee is doing fine without them. If this relationship did not exist, they may have felt very isolated from the church, because they would have not been able to attend church events. What a God moment when Lorene decided to help JoLee and use her gifts in developing a relationship with her!
Karen Pfahler had a passion to help people with disabilities at an early age. She went directly to voluntary service at the Hattie Larlham Foundation after high school. She then double-majored in elementary education and special education at Eastern Mennonite College. Karen taught life skills at Goshen Community Schools for 32 years and recently retired. She serves as an ADN disability advocate for Waterford Mennonite Church in Goshen, Indiana.