20 Practical Things Pastors and Churches Can Do To Make Families and Children with Disabilities Feel Welcome
by Deb Wade
Deb Wade is the Northwest District president of United Methodist Women in the North Alabama Conference and convener/chair of North Alabama Annual Conference’s Disability Ministries Team. She offers practical ways to make families or children with disabilities welcome in United Methodist congregations. This article originally appeared last March on the United Methodist Disability Ministries’ website (www.umdisabilitiesministries.org). This version was first published in New World Outlook magazine, May-June 2014 issue.
An accessible playground in Huntsville, Alabama, allows Abby Patrick to swing for the very first time. The accessible playground was made possible through a grant from the North Alabama Annual Conference Disability Ministries to Monte Sano United Methodist Church.
Photo: Monte Sano United Methodist Church, Huntsville, Alabama
If a new family starts attending church and has a child with a disability…
1. Greet family members and be welcoming. Be truly happy to see the child and call him or her by name.
2. Include the child in church activities.
3. Do not judge the child for his or her behavior when the behavior is the result of his or her disability.
4. Pray for the family.
5. Do not be afraid to interact with the child, even if the child doesn’t speak.
6. Do observe the personal space of a child, especially a child with autism (i.e., some autistic children do not like to be hugged or touched—talk to the parents first).
7. Do talk to the parents about their child and ask what you can do to help.
8. It is NOT helpful to talk to parents by telling them that God chose them to have this child because they were such strong people! It is better to say, “I do not understand why your child was born with this disability, but I do know that God will give you the strength and wisdom that you need as parents to raise her or him. We, as your church family, are here for you. We are praying for you. Please lean on us and tell us how we can help.”
9. A simple, “How is your child doing?” can go a long way to helping parents feel that you really care.
10. Never say to parents, “It could be worse,” when discussing their child’s being born with disabilities!
11. Observe an annual Disability Awareness Sunday.
12. Provide training for staff and volunteers.
13. Check with the conference office for available training for your pastor. Pastors are to receive training in disability awareness as outlined in the Book of Discipline.
14. If there are other children in the family, give them extra attention.
15. Remove barriers that make worship difficult for a child with disabilities.
16. Talk to the parents about the needs of the child so that everyone at the church who works with the child knows how best to teach the child or what to do in case of an emergency.
17. If needed, find a responsible older youth to be a “buddy” for the child with disabilities.
18. Educate the children in the church about different disabilities (children’s moments; Sunday school, etc.)
19. If the disability is severe and the family has to miss church for an extended period of time, offer respite care (offer to baby-sit; offer to cook a meal; etc.)
20. Complete an annual Accessibility Audit as required by the Book of Discipline.