Friday, March 29, 2019

Leadership Lesson Series: Including Students With Disabilities

In many churches and religious communities across America, children and youth with disabilities are under-served. It was reported in a recent study published by The Journal of Scientific Study of Religion that children with chronic health conditions are more likely than healthy children to never attend a church service in their life. This is especially true for children with conditions that affect social interaction and communication (e.g. autism, ADD/ADHD, personality disorders).1 This is not too surprising because of the continuation of stigma that surrounds those with disabilities, especially mental disabilities. There are still many myths and a general lack of understanding about persons with disabilities even among church workers and youth ministry volunteers.

Parents of children with disabilities are likely part of the reason this population of children attend religious services less often. It is conceivable that they may seek to isolate their children more than parents of healthy children out of a desire to protect their children. Church ministry leaders and volunteers can do a lot more to make such parents and students feel more welcome and accommodated. In fact, we have a duty to serve this population of children and youth as we do all populations! (see Luke 18:15-16)

The lack of understanding that pervades much of the general population regarding persons with disabilities needs to be addressed. Youth ministry leaders, workers, and volunteers have a duty to learn and seek to understand how they can better serve this population. Below are simple steps you can take to educate yourself and those you know both within your ministry and in your church and community.  Ideas on how to include persons with disabilities in your programs and activities are also outlined.


Check your assumptions. A young man attended my church for several years who was paralyzed from the waist down and used a wheelchair. I had regrettably never taken the opportunity to get to know him. One weekend he rolled to the front of the church at the time the sermon was to begin. As he began to preach, I thought to myself, "I hope this sermon is good." By the time he finished I realized it was one of the best sermons I had heard in a long time. When I first saw him upfront, did I assume he was mentally substandard? I would like to think not, but many people do equate physical disability with mental deficiency, however unintentionally. In fact, this is usually incorrect. I later learned that my church member was a college English professor! His physical ability had no bearing on his mental prowess. We must take time to analyze our conscious and subconscious assumptions about people with disabilities. We must stop expecting less of them. We must keep an open mind and never make assumptions or judge someone based on their appearance or our previous experiences with other disabled people. Do so now. How do you view students with disabilities? How does Jesus see them?

Make space in your programs and activities for those with disabilities. This process may seem daunting. There are so many various disabilities affecting all aspects of being including physical, mental, social, learning, and behavior. Begin by building a welcoming culture among your leaders.  This is easily done by raising awareness. Study how Jesus interacted with the disabled in staff worship or at a general worship program for your participants. Learn about each student's unique condition. There are non-profits for nearly every major chronic health condition that provide free information online (example: Autism Speaks). You do not need to become a medical professional or an expert in all forms of disability. Focus on educating yourself about the specific condition of students who attend your functions. Check out Key Ministry which seeks to empower churches to serve children with disabilities.

Educate staff and yourself about how to create a welcoming atmosphere. Invite a professional who works with those with disabilities to give a presentation or training to your staff and volunteers on general things you can do to be more accommodating, how to help, and how NOT to help. One thing that can cause those with disabilities to not return is over-helping. Sometimes in an effort to 'help' the disabled person, we can assume they are capable of less than they really are and just do things for them instead of truly helping them accomplish something or letting them try. This is especially true in activities like games or crafts. This can become patronizing and belittling. It does not make them feel welcome. A professional can help train your staff and volunteers about how to create a welcoming atmosphere and how to avoid over-helping. Someone trained as a social worker, special education teacher, occupational therapist, school guidance counselor or licensed mental health counselor are all good options. There are some great instructional videos online also about this topic.

Seek out students with disabilities and invite them. The best thing you can do to make children and parents in this population feel welcome is to build a relationship with them. Get to know those in the community/congregation you serve and seek out youth and their parents whom you know to be disabled. Tactfully invite the parents to accompany their students if they prefer. Tell them you are trying to better serve all populations including children with disabilities and you invite their feedback about changes you could implement to better serve and include them. Every child is different and every disability is unique. Students and their parents/caregivers know best what they need so take your cues from them. Consider assigning one staff or volunteer to each child with a disability to serve as an aid. This may be best especially if the parent/caregiver decides not to stay.

Make physical structural changes to your building or facilities to make them more accessible. This is not necessarily prohibitively expensive. Your building or facility may be old enough that it is not built to modern handicap accessible codes. Although you may not be required by law to update, you can still do so voluntarily. Dr. Larry Evans, director of Special Needs Ministries "Possibility Ministries" of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists recommends starting with the bathrooms and access to the church platform.2 A ramp at one entrance to the building may also be helpful. It does not necessarily have to cost lots of money. Installing a ramp or wider doors and a stall in the bathrooms may be done for a couple thousand dollars or less, especially if someone is willing to volunteer the labor. Consult with a local contractor before making any changes. Also, consult with any disabled persons who attend your church or group to see what changes would best suit them and start there.

Taylor activities and programs to be inclusive. This step may take a bit of learning and planning. Because of the diversity of needs among different chronic health conditions, it is best to find what changes each child needs by talking to that student or their parent/caregiver or by getting recommendations from the aforementioned professionals. A few general pointers will also help. Plan programs in a place that is accessible by wheelchair. Reserve room near the front or back for students that need that specific place. (For example, students with poor eyesight can see the screen better if they sit on the front row) Consider turning the volume and lights lower as many students are sensitive to loud noise and bright light. Plan activities that are inclusive of kids with all abilities. You may even consider a separate program for students with special needs.

Some examples of inclusive activities and games:
  • Sitting activities/games
  • Slow paced activities/games
  • Games/activities that use only one sense or body region (examples: ones that involve hearing only if you have blind participants, using only upper extremities for those in wheelchairs) 
  • Games/activities that require only parallel social interaction (i.e. each participant works on their own project along side other participants and it does not require much social interaction)
  • Activities/games that are primarily mental not physical (this would be appropriate if your participants have physical but not mental limitations) 
  • Find more ideas here.
Get their input. This is another tip from Dr. Evans and perhaps one of the most important things you can do. You can read all the resources available online or even become a professional, yet still not provide what a specific person wants or needs. If you do not have any disabled participants, start by building a welcoming atmosphere. Once a disabled person does begin to participate, get their input. Include them or their parent/caregiver in planning activities and events. Treat them as you would anyone else. Consider inviting them to share their needs and ideas with the leadership staff or in a committee meeting. Consider asking a disabled church or group member or their parent/caregiver to be on your committee or board. This is especially helpful if your group or ministry serves a large disabled clientele.

Remember, you do not have to do everything perfectly. Seek to learn as the more you know the better equipped you will be to meet each unique need. Parents and caregivers are much more likely to bring their students with disability if they know they will be treated with respect and the leaders are working to actively include them.


1. Andrew L. Whitehead, "Religion and Disability: Variation in Religious Service Attendance Rates for Children with Chronic Health Conditions," The Journal of Scientific Study of Religion 57, iss. 2 (June, 2018): 377-395, accessed March 10, 2019
2. Larry R. Evans (director of Special Needs Ministries of General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists), email message to author, April 27, 2019. 

Written by David F. Garner
Photo Credit: BeatriceBB via