Youth ministry is as much about building relationships as it is about programming. Building supportive relationships and effective programming require understanding and appreciation of individuals and their gifts and differences.
Youth with obvious differences ("disabilities") offer a gift to a youth group. Their presence is a constant, visible reminder that each youth is unique and has unique needs and strengths. At the same time, it is hard to be different, especially during the teen and teen years.
Tips for Youth Leaders
Learn about a youth's disability or difference
- Start with parents. Ask about interests and strengths, not just needs.
- Then learn about the disability from online research or contacting ADN.
- Don’t forget the youth themselves. Honest, respectful questions and conversations can occur once a relationship of trust has been established.
Accommodate particular needs
- Ask and observe: What are the barriers to full inclusion and participation? Barriers can be physical, cognitive, sensory, or emotional.
- Accommodation is the process of adapting the environment to remove barriers and facilitate greater participation.
Support individuals to enable group participation
- Very often, a few additional resources enable persons with disabilities to participate fully: an extra adult at a retreat, a large-print Bible for Bible study, or an ASL interpreter for youth with deafness may be all that’s needed.
- Perhaps you can work with parents to create an appropriate, consistent “behavior plan” to support youth with autism or mental health challenges.
- Respectful, honest explanations to other youth will help them understand and relate well.
Respect each youth as a beloved child of God.
- Care enough to set standards that are “realistically high.” Pity is not love. Growth is a journey for each of us. Value effort, not just results.
- Know yourself and know your youth. We are all individuals with a mixture of strengths and weaknesses, gifts and needs, prone to sin and saved by grace. Be willing to share the faith journey with all your youth.
- Finally, never underestimate the courage it takes for a youth with a disability, depression, or other mental illness to simply show up and participate. Let them know you are glad they are there!