By Lisa Richard

Helping people connect with other families and gain access to resources is one of my passions. That’s why I became the Rural Outreach Specialist for the Center for Family Involvement.

Recently I had the opportunity to help a church here in Southwest VA set up a ministry for children with disabilities. The Pastor had a vision to minister to those families that often have difficulty joining a church family. As an advocate for children with special needs and their parents I have seen firsthand the difficulties that our families have in a church environment. Often children with special needs are unable to sit still and focus on the sermon. Parents end up having to take them out and are either embarrassed or, sad to say, given reprimanding looks to control their child.

Many parents I speak with will stop going to church because of their child’s disability and lose the opportunity to worship with friends and family. Pastor Hicks decided to help those parents who might be struggling with this particular issue and be an option for those who would like to return to church. He wanted to provide a safe and spiritual environment for children who might not otherwise have the opportunity.

The new room for the ministry is a sensory room. This room helps children who have different sensory sensitivities to light, sound or too many people. Often a child with disabilities experiences too much or too little stimulation through their senses and has trouble integrating the information they’re receiving. The Sensory Room allows them to be in a quiet place with muted colors and softened lights. There are covers on the lights to dim the fluorescents and the room is decorated/painted in such a way that there is a calming and relaxing atmosphere. This room is in no way intended to keep them out of a traditional service but only to serve as a place to go when sitting still or participating in a sermon is too overwhelming.

The name of this ministry is called Pathways. The hope for this particular church is that families who have stopped coming can see this ministry as a pathway back to fellowship and worship with others.

Even though I have two children with disabilities, I sometimes take for granted how difficult things can be for families like ours. My own church is very welcoming and accommodating to my two children with Down syndrome. Still – there have been more than a few occasions where I have been concerned that we were disrupting a service. For some the worry is too much and they just stop going to church.

Many churches across the country have disability ministries to try and help those families who have felt ignored or left behind to return to services on Sunday and during the week.

With multiple locations in the Washington DC area McLean Bible Church has a disability ministry named Access Ministry. Their mission statement reads in part:

Access is the “disability ministry” of McLean Bible Church. While the word “disability” is used, we prefer to think of Access as a ministry of “possibilities” not defined by what can’t be done but rather by what all individuals regardless of ability level can achieve in God’s house.

The description of their ministry goes on to say that Access Ministry has a holistic approach to care for individuals with disabilities and their families by providing spiritual, physical and emotional care.

Christian churches are not the only ones reaching out to families touched by disability.

Ed Frim is an inclusion specialist at United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that true inclusion goes much deeper than making synagogue life accessible. “Inclusive congregations are mindful of everyone who is part of the community,” he said. “They establish a culture that takes for granted that all, including those with disabilities, have the right to fully participate as part of the congregation.”

“It’s not just about training ushers to be welcoming to people with disabilities and helping them find their way, it’s about turning the entire congregation into ushers, who seek to create a welcoming environment,” he said.

Whatever your faith being a part of your faith based community should be a right not a privilege. Some congregations are working hard to make that happen.

SarahDugger-90px***Lisa Richard is the Rural Outreach Specialist for the Center for Family Involvement. She is the mother of 7 children and lives in Southwest Virginia.

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