Monday, June 04, 2007

Considering Special Needs in Church: Ramps and Relationships

In a previous post I promised to write down a few ways I think local congregations make it difficult for disabled / families of the disabled to “do” church. As I have thought more about that over the weekend and entered into a few discussions (electronically and personally) I have decided to take a mixed approach. I will try to point out both what I think a church should not do as well as what they should do in order to minister to families with a special needs child.

The obvious first place is physical accessibility. I doubt too much needs to said on this matter as much has been accomplished in “the world” to make public facilities easy to navigate for anyone that suffers mobility hindrances.

That being said, churches may be at the last of the line in this matter. Many congregations constructed their buildings many years ago and may not have a lot of extra cash sitting around to build ramps or install elevators. Still, a wise congregation is going to walk through their facility and see if the majority of areas are accessible by wheelchair, crutches and the like. When they are not, then it is high time action is taken to make them so.

Our own church is in a bit of quandary here. We rent a Christian school, but to get to our main meeting room requires navigating two sets of concrete stairs. That ain’t so easy if you use a walker like one of our members or if you have depth perception limitations like my son. But we do not own our meeting place, thus it is difficult to know how to solve this. (One more reason we continue to pray for our own building for free.)

Relationships: Start with Your Eyes
But even more important than physical accessibility is relational openness. When a family walks into your church with a special needs child (trust me on this), they feel every single eye that is stealing a perplexed look their way. If I could encourage churches to do just one thing to minister to families in this situation, it would be this: do not stare. Not even for a second. And especially do not stare or look when the special needs kid yells or laughs too long or talks at the wrong time or drools or makes some unmistakable bodily sound.

Do you know what this family longs for? To be a “normal” part of your fellowship. To be accepted and loved and cared for and related to. Whatever the injury or chromosomal damage that causes their child to be “different” – the fact is, 9 times out of 10, things are not going to improve.

Most cognitive disabilities mean that large body is housing a mind that functions at a much younger age level. Recall what it was like to get your three-year old to sit through a church service with you! If you were like us, it meant many trips out of the meeting room to explain what appropriate behaviour was needed. Three-year-olds are not naturally prone to sitting still, looking up, staying quiet, singing along, not fidgeting, avoiding staring, and all such things! They have to be trained and the typical child will grow in his understanding...

When a child is atypical, however, the issue is not obedience, it is ability. The disapproving stare... or even the curious stare... when seen by the parent, is like another kick in the gut. These parents are trying... hard! They do not want to be the centre of attention, they do not want to disrupt the proceedings, they do not come to church to make a spectacle of things... but that may be what happens. Every week.

Is your church ready to love a family like that? To serve them by accepting them, not condemning them (even silently in your heart)? Are you ready to put up with “being interrupted?”

The first door into relationship is acceptance.

We need to get over our fears and learn to walk up to families that include a special needs child and welcome them! In the next post, I hope to expand on this very idea and give some practical suggestions on what else you can do to make your church one where everyone, not just special needs families, feel welcome.


  1. Just as a point of interest: All public buildings in Ontario, including churches, are required to be fully accessible by (I think) 2020. Kind of sad that it will take a legal requirement to get us to do something. We wanted to do things one step at a time but that is not possible. Once you put in the ramp you must also have washroom facilities. We are going to need a lot of money all at one time. But we find it for other things, like parking lots, so we can do this if the will is there.

  2. Hi Paul,
    I remember distinctly having my attention being drawn to people with special needs simply after becoming a new mom and needing to push a stroller places! A lot of stores don't get my business simply because there's no way my stroller (and its occasionally prone to shoplifting occupant) won't fit through the aisles!

    A question - we have a dear new family who have several adopted foster children, one who is close in age to our 6 y.o,daughter, and "seems" to be developmentally delayed. Is there any polite/loving way to inquire, or is it most loving to just wait to be offered information? I'm pretty certain "So, what's wrong with your kid??" isn't the way. :)

    Also, I wonder what all parents could learn about parenting to ability vs. expectations from families with special needs kids. Onc thing I have learned to my shame is that sometimes I'm expecting my 15m baby to, for example, have the table manners of her older sisters, and the cognition just isn't there yet. Same with sitting still in church, responding to instructions without being distracted by 14 things along the way....

  3. Amen. Please look at this website, then click on the "access-disability ministry" link. It is a mega-church in McLean, VA. It is not a reformed church by any stretch of the imagination, however, they do an incredible job of reaching out to the families in their church and the community who have children with special needs. Churches can learn much from the efforts put forth by this church to minister to the special needs families. Thank you Paul for calling attention to this need in our churches!

  4. I'd be happy to have people stare as much as they like if it would get them to remember how difficult it is to have two autistic kids and little money for babysitting and then volunteer to watch them for us. Respite from care for them is a much greater need than wanting to be treated as normal. The kind of normalcy that allows us to go out for dinner, go to a movie, or attend a party without having to spend the whole time running after the kids is much more important to me than not having to see people looking at our kids when they make noise in church.

  5. If I can provide an answer to the question above...

    There is no great way to ask a special needs family, "What's wrong with your kid?" That's because the families are all at different stages in dealing with their circumstances. Some are bitter and struggling and are easily offended. Others have joyfully accepted their situation and are glad to talk about it. To echo Paul, the best thing you can do is befriend and welcome and smile and accept and you'll soon know the family and their needs well enough.

    For my daughter (16, wheel chair bound, terminal condition known as Ataxia Telangiectasia) we printed prayer cards like missionaries distribute. It explains her disease and needs and gives a testimony of her allegiance to Christ--along with an invitation to visit her website. When people ask us or stare (common events, to be sure!) we offer them the card.

    Also, when we built the wheelchair ramp at our church, I had no idea my daughter would be the first to use it!

    Her page with picture of her prayer cards:

  6. I don't have a child with a disability, but my family volunteers at a wonderful program run by Westwood Presbyterian Church in Winnipeg called "Rainbow Walk".

    Westwood has created an outreach to mentally challenged adults that live in group homes in the neighbourhood. They use a modified version of Young Children and Worship as a "curriculum" and have a craft and coffee and chat time after their mid-week evening meetings. My family plays some music and leads singing for about 20 minutes before the actual service starts. There are quarterly events such as barbeques, dances and special guests (firefighters, artists, musicians, line dance teachers). Members of the church are welcome to attend all of these and they are well received.

    Attendees at Rainbow Walk are encouraged to attend Sunday morning services at any church, and they are welcomed at Westwood. They are given roles to perform during service, and the Rainbow Walk bell choir plays at services around the city. All of this is run by volunteers from the church and the city faith community (I attend a different church).

    My kids are far better people for it. They are learning respect and kindness and the "don't stare" factor that was mentioned above. Most importantly they are learning to simply see people with mental disabilities as people first and foremost.

    I led worship for a number of years and I still haven't seen or felt anything as authentic and wonderful as a half hour of singing hymns with the Rainbow Walk crew.

  7. I am the mother of an adult son who is mentally and emotionally an adolescent. Since kindergarten years, there has never been a place for him in any church we've attended, because he didn't 'fit in.' The sad thing is, he knows it, and has refused to attend church for several years.

    It's a personal sadness, but one that I'm sure is shared by many parents of disabled adult children. Most are behind closed doors, and friendless. I am stumped as to what answer to give to his question as to why the church doesn't have room for him. It should not be.

    Thank you for bringing attention to this need. I hope many people listen and act.