The intrinsic and extrinsic values of employment cannot be overstated—employment can lead to feelings of self-worth, accomplishment, and a sense of fulfillment based on our positive experiences. In fact, our level of self-confidence and happiness may depend on it. But what can our church communities do to replicate that experience for individuals who are unemployed or underemployed due to significant intellectual and developmental disabilities?
Your church community can be the perfect place to begin the journey to positive employment for people with disabilities, by using tools such as employment readiness training, volunteerism, and employment within the church. The success of such an undertaking requires commitment and a heart of service. The following suggestions can be beneficial for all workers involved.
1. Develop healthy relationships
Positive experiences are often created through connections with others. It is important to identify individuals in your congregation who want to make a commitment to foster relationships with others of all ability levels. All participants should be willing to laugh, cry, care, and share while working side by side with each other. Initially, every job involving those with disabilities should be completed with a work partner. Neither is the “boss” while all parties work together to complete a task.
2. Participate during predetermined structured times
Identify specific weekly time frames to work together and stick to those time frames. Developing a routine and structure provide comfort and a sense of security. Qualities of dependability, punctuality, and job worth are fostered when others also demonstrate and talk about the values of these qualities.
3. Find jobs that fit the individuals
Tasks need to be identified that are useful to our community and for which we are capable. Very few people like mean- ingless “busy work” that holds no value. Jobs may need to be “carved” or adapted to meet the specific needs of the workers. For example, bulletins may need to be folded or stuffed with inserts for Sunday’s service. Mailings may need to be addressed or sealed. Returned books in the church library may need to be shelved. Someone may need to sit at the table where dona- tions are given for the evening meal to welcome and thank others for attending. Vacuuming and dusting may need to be done on a weekly basis. A word of caution, however—all jobs should not be custodial in nature. A variety of jobs encourages flexible thinking and problem solving. Careful task analysis can break down jobs into doable steps for everyone.
4. Encourage and celebrate one another each step of the way.
Model reinforcing co-workers and soon they will reinforce each other. Celebrate the completion of a task. Acknowledge the difficulties or the length of time needed to complete the job. Be sincere and ALWAYS be honest. One example of a positive conversation may look something like this: “Stuffing the bulletin is not my favorite job but I know it is helpful to our office staff. So, I stuff each one and I think of the positive things like ... I get to spend time with you. You make me laugh. I also get to see the office staff smile. Let’s go get a coke when we are done—maybe we should get a drink for them, too.”
5. Commit to a fair wage plan
You may want to start out promoting a volunteer experience or employment readiness training, but the goal is to develop into a paid experience. This should be explained in the beginning of this relationship. Churches should look at the minimum wage policies. Research how this might look in your budget and plan accordingly. A member of your congregation may wish to donate an amount specifically for this purpose. It is important not to overpay, but also not to underpay. This is a learning experience, therefore, paralleling life experiences in the job market is important. The term “pay” may be in actual currency or in a virtual savings account to meet an established goal, such as bus fare for the annual church trip to the zoo. One can be creative but a reinforcement of “pay” is optimal. If a job is worth doing, then it is worth compensation.
Relationship-building is the most important goal. A sense of empowerment, self-worth, confidence, and personal value are all byproducts. The feelings of belonging while learning and practicing life skills together is a powerful outcome on this journey.
For more information on setting up a work program in your church, contact ADN at (574) 343-1362.
Julie Foster lives in Bridgewater, Virginia, with her husband, Lance. She has 39 years of experience in public education with parents and children of various disabilities. She currently teaches special education American Sign Language courses at Bridgewater College in Bridgewater, Virginia. She is also a Board Member for Anabaptist Disabilities Network.