Ten Things You Should Know To Welcome People of All Abilities to Church

By J.C. Mitchell

1.    If you have had one or even a few people with special needs in your ministry, this does not mean you know how to welcome all.  Very often when I tell a pastor about my ministry at Open Gathering they start telling me their one success story (which I do enjoy learning from), but they do not seem to understand there is more to do to welcome all.  This is not unlike someone saying there is no more racism because Obama was elected president.

2.    Accommodation is important, but it is not in and of itself welcome.  Having a ramp at the back door may be a financial reality, but if the main entrance is accessible to all that is much more welcoming.  

3.    Having a cry room is great for babies, but children that are old enough to start learning to sit in the sanctuary may make noise. Suggesting that they should go to the cry room is inappropriate.  Yes, some parents would rather go to the cry room, even with a kindergartner or older child, but it should be their choice.  Many children with autism, for example, need to learn by doing the same thing, so going to the cry room the first time will become the way the child goes to church, creating an extra and unnecessary step in learning.

4.    Using person first language should be the assumed way of talking about a person with disabilities. (For more information check out Arc's Website)  Yes, there are some that use their different ability as a proud identifier, and if they desire to use a descriptive such as “aspie” of course use that when referring to them specifically, but one’s name is still preferred.  This is less about offending one with a different ability, but to help those to see the individual and not the diagnosis. 

5.    Do not diagnose.  You may be obsessive and compulsive, but that does not mean you have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (if you suspect you do, you should get help as well as a diagnosis).  This goes with many diagnoses and when a person hears others being labeled incorrectly, you belittle those that actually live with that diagnosis.

6.    Avoid the word “struggles. “ Unless you say struggles as a descriptive of the way our culture accepts and includes people with different abilities.  

7.    Do know that life is harder, more expensive, lonely, and stressful for families with someone with special needs in the family.

8.    Never assume, as you know what that spells.  Thus keep this question in your pocket, “how can I help you?” rather than “do you want me to show you the cry room” or “Don’t you think your child may be happier to wait in the fellowship hall until Sunday School” (Most kids would be).

9.    Talk about this welcome openly and be open to places you fail.  It may be not possible to include every child in a program like VBS, but work with the parents to include all children.  Generally if you tell me, “Your son is welcome and we will figure it out” after I tell you he has a disability, I am much more suspicious than the church that asks specific questions with a desire to make it work, for the latter knows it is hard work.

10.    When a parent tells you their child has a disability or a diagnosis, refrain from saying, “That’s OK” or “I am Sorry.”  The latter to me is less offensive for it is honest, but the former is simply annoying, for who are you to tell me if it is OK or not?  I realize you mean well, but to say, “thank you for sharing” or bonus “thank you for sharing, and how best can I interact (or help) your child and/or you?” is ideal.  Often the reason we feel compelled to share with you that our child has a special need (or if one self-advocating) is that we think you should know, and we already know it is OK and at the same time awfully difficult.  So if you can go beyond the pleasantries, you will be much more welcoming.

11.    Bonus: Know that the work to welcome all will never be completed, and there is no program or book that will give you all the answers, but I do suggest these three books to develop a theology of inclusion:  

Vulnerable Communion by Thomas Reynolds

The Bible, Disabilty and the Church, by Amos Yong

The Disabled God, by Nancy Eiesland