Creating an inclusive church environment begins with noticing the needs of persons with disabilities near at hand and out in the community.
CONGREGATIONS HAVE UNSPOKEN LANGUAGE
Do you know what language your church speaks? Persons experience God in many ways other than language, and the language of God’s people is often more than words. Body language, attitudes, interest or disinterest, actions or non-actions speak a language all their own. Congregations and individuals can be bi-lingual and not even know it when people give a message different from what they say with their mouths. Noticing the needs of persons with various impairments is the beginning of improving the climate of your congregation.
One person with an impairment after attending church commented, “They didn’t say anything, but I heard exactly what they were saying.”
James Thurber, an American humorist and writer and an observer of everyday life and behavior, began to see that houses and public buildings had personalities. His illustrations were done in caricatures in which people behave like animals and animals behave like people. Almost totally blind for the last fifteen years of his life, he depended on his emotional responses and sensory impressions to describe the aura of a place. He was convinced that buildings have varied personalities. And, of course, he was right. How persons in the congregation interact can be “felt,” and emotional responses and sensory impressions often help visitors decide for or against returning.
It’s not with malice that congregations flounder at developing a warm, accepting climate. For the most part, members feel at home, and assume that everyone does. Once special needs are called to attention – and persons with those needs become visible – a congregation is ready to open its arms a lot wider, attitudes are changed, and people will look squarely at persons who had previously seemed invisible and say, “Hi, my name is ………. What is yours?” But who are those invisble people and and how can we identify them?
Look with new eyes for the people who are invisible. Totally invisible! They are so absent we don’t notice they’re not there. They don’t attend church functions because they can’t hear the sermon or see the minister or are bound to the vital oxygen tank or can’t drive themselves. Or they must stay at home as caregivers for someone who is ill. They don’t miss the joy of congregational fellowship because they have never experienced it. Wistfully on a Sunday morning they might wonder what real Sunday School or church would be like instead of watching wrestling or church on television. Or perhaps they have put spirituality or church ideas out of their minds.
Totally invisible persons are of any age; the child with spina bifida or missing limbs is just as invisible as the youth who is mentally challenged and stays home with an adult caregiver. For the adult with chemical sensitivities, any trip outside their protected cocoon into a building with scented wax or perfume has dire consequences.
And no one has noticed.
Look with new eyes at the persons with special needs who are on the fringe of activity. Keep looking because they are sporadic attenders. They have gifts to share, and no one has noticed them or their gifts. These may be persons with mental and physical challenges or persons with chronic illnesses. They won’t complain or ask for favors, and, although they stand in great need, might consider it self-serving to ask for a ramp, equipped restrooms, large print hymnal or a hearing device.
Fringe-invisibles with special needs also come in any age. Young parents suddenly stay home because they now have a baby with special needs, and there is no nursery care for a fragile child. Occasionally one of them attends a church function. Often they become angry with a church that has made no preparation for their child. A fringe-invisible mother brings her typical nine year old daughter to Sunday school but has never been to an adult Sunday school class because she sits in the church library with a teenage son who has developmental delay. The church made no mainstream or separate provision for him. The boy and his mother as fringe-invisible persons are seen but not seen. The parents of fringe invisible persons with special challenges often become even more invisible as they are wounded by the lack of caring.
And no one has noticed.
Sometimes a fringe-invisible person gets up in your face and requests a ramp or a teacher’s aide for a child with a disability. We may respect the request but have no idea how to enact it, so we tend to scribble a note about it, spindle or file it, or let it lie there on a desk while the person who made the request fades away. Not a single person notices the fading, but we may from time to time feel unsettled about the chunk of need burning like a hot coal on the little scrap of paper. Finally, we trash the paper.
We hope no one notices.
REWARDS OF WELCOMING THE PERSONS WHO ARE INVISIBLE
When you look with new eyes, the awakening transforms. Now that you see the invisible persons, you can welcome them, learn their names and gifts and with their help explore ways to make them feel at home.
Once you recognize the unspoken and spoken language of your congregation, you can create an environment that says, “We care,” and “We need you,” “We value you,” and “How may we work with you to assist?” The persons you ask are the best opportunity for creating a wholesome congregational environment. The rewards of doing this are huge and happy, and they can transform a congregation even beyond benefiting persons with special needs. An inclusive congregation not only gives the gift of friendship, it receives the useful and varied gifts from persons with special needs. A new relationship of gifts is born.
IF YOU SAY YOU HAVE NO PERSONS WITH SPECIAL NEEDS, THERE IS SOMETHING WRONG WITH YOUR INTERNAL VISION! THERE IS ALWAYS AN INVISIBLE PERSON WAITING TO BE INVITED IN, PERHAPS TWO OR THREE, PERHAPS MORE, AND MANY OUT IN THE COMMUNITY.