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.