Sunday school should be for all children, not simply most children. This was Christy Weems’ conviction that led her to become one of ADN’s Student Associates when she was a college student. She had a vision that children like her brother, who has Down syndrome, would have the same opportunity as anyone else to learn about Jesus.
Christy worked to create a resource list for the conference library which serves the Western District and South Central Conferences of Mennonite Church USA. There, Sunday school teachers can check out books and materials to grow in understanding of the unique needs of children with intellectual disabilities. Churches elsewhere can take advantage of her resource recommendations.
Recommended videos and downloadable resources.
As the Apostle Paul reminded the church in Corinth, the members who seem weaker are indispensable in the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:22). A church community that is living up to the call to live in the reign of God will provide children with disabilities a place to belong and contribute. Books and websites from our resource list offer congregations a way to learn about including people with disabilities by drawing on the experiences of others.
Erik W. Carter, in his book, Including People with Disabilities in Faith Communities, points out that parents often choose a congregation largely based on the quality of programs available for their children. If a child with disabilities is not welcomed and included, their family may never return. As a rule, churches do not intentionally exclude children with disabilities. When exclusion happens, it is more likely because church members are unaware of the unique needs of a student with disabilities, or because they do not know how to meet the needs caused by a student’s differences. ADN can assist with awareness and know-how.
Advantages of inclusion
Classes that integrate students with and without intellectual disabilities have many advantages:
- Encouraging relationships between people with disabilities and those without
- Building on the experiences of inclusion that children have in public schools
- Breaking down attitudinal barriers that focus on difference rather than things held in common
- Calling for creative thinking within existing programs rather than requiring a church to create an entirely new program
- Available to congregations of any size
Barriers to inclusion
Since Sunday school teachers are usually volunteers, they may have little formal training for teaching students with intellectual disabilities. Teachers with no training related to disabilities may lack confidence for teaching people with disabilities, especially when a class contains students with diverse learning needs. Further, inclusion classrooms need to be thoughtfully planned so that children with disabilities are not merely present but also engaged and learning. A few tips below, drawn from Erik Carter and others, may spark your thinking.
Strategies for inclusion
- Name a Coordinator to ensure that children with disabilities are properly welcomed and included.
- Work toward inclusion one child at a time.
- Identify needs. Tools for assessing needs are described here.
- Make a plan to provide one-to-one or extra support for children who need it.
- Broadly communicate statements of welcome for people with disabilities.
- Use respectful descriptive words. "Intellectual disability", "developmental disability", and "cognitive disability" are terms that self-advocates with disabilities prefer instead of a label like "mental retardation", which has too often been turned into a weapon of hurt and hate.
- Provide support and training for teachers and helpers.
ADN can help
Ask ADN staff about recommended resources to assist Sunday school teachers as they learn to include students with intellectual disabilities into their classrooms. ADN offers resources to borrow or purchase. Your public or university library may be another source to borrow from at little or no cost.
Contact ADN if you would like to schedule a teacher training workshop at your location or by videoconference.