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Worshippers With Disabilities Search For Acceptance


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ORLANDO, Fla. — Lindsay Graham grew up in the same church attended by her parents and grandparents, and she expected the same would be true for her children. That changed when her son, J.D., was diagnosed with autism at age 2.

There were outbursts and tantrums, calls in the middle of the church service from the Sunday school teacher that J.D. was being disruptive. There were disapproving looks from other members of the congregation. Even if they didn’t say it, Graham knew what they were thinking: Can’t you keep your child under control?

“I felt very ostracized because he was always misbehaving. We just didn’t fit that perfect family mold,” said Graham, 33.

It was time to find another church, one equipped to handle children with disabilities. They ended up at First Baptist Orlando, which has a special needs ministry for children.

“At First Baptist, we found a place where we fit. I feel people don’t judge because you see a lot of kids with special needs,” Graham said.

Fifty million Americans have some form of disability and those numbers continue to grow as the population ages, the number of children with autism and attention deficit disorders grows, and soldiers return home from Iraq and Afghanistan with missing limbs and post-traumatic stress disorders.

But those numbers are not reflected in the pews, where accommodations for people with physical and mental disabilities are limited. A growing number of adults face the challenge of finding churches, synagogues, temples and mosques that are open and accepting of people with disabilities.

Martha Knowles, who has been deaf since the age of 7, said it is always difficult for people who are deaf to find a church that provides interpreters who can accurately translate the service through signing. And even when they do find such a church, sometimes they encounter resentment from members of the congregation.

“Some churches don’t feel comfortable having deaf people there,” said Knowles, 61.

That is starting to change, said Bill Gaventa, director of the Summer Institute on Theology and Disability. Acceptance of people with disabilities has grown during the past 15 years as both welcoming congregations and people with special needs find each other through the Internet.

“The Internet allows people to hear positive stories: That church is doing something, can’t we do something here?” Gaventa said.

But there are still obstacles. Some older churches are exempt from federal requirements to be handicap accessible, which creates problems for worshippers in wheelchairs.

“If you don’t have a restroom where someone in a wheelchair can go to the bathroom, how can you expect that person to attend?” said Ginny Thornburgh, director of the Interfaith Initiative with the American Association of People with Disabilities. “If we can’t go, we won’t come.”

But the bigger barrier isn’t architecture — it’s attitude, Thornburgh said. It’s not the stairs, it’s the stares. Too often, those with disabilities are regarded as people who are incomplete, broken, defective or inferior.

“Disability theology” is a response to that perspective. Based on Scripture, disability theology contends that those with special needs are also created by God and given attributes that are no less significant than any other person.

They don’t need fixing, they don’t need healing. What they need is a place in the pews, advocates contend.

“We are created by God and we are his handiwork,” said First Baptist Senior Pastor David Uth. “Our goal is to create a culture where everyone is valued and everyone is honored.”

Making church an accommodating place starts with the pulpit. “If the senior pastor is not on board and saying this church will be a welcoming and inclusive church, it will be very hard for something to be established,” said Linda Starnes, who helped start the special needs ministry at Northland, A Church Distributed in Longwood, Fla.

Senior Pastor Joel Hunter has made inclusion a priority at Northland, said Starnes, and the result is evident every Sunday: “Now you see people of all ages who are walking and rolling and strolling in with all different means of mobility and it’s a wonderful thing.”

Much of the change in acceptance has come from the parents of children with special needs, adults with disabilities and their advocates who have made access to church not just a matter of faith but also fairness.

“The key to me is a child or an adult has a right to be honored and valued in the house of God of their choice. It’s a justice issue,” Thornburgh said.

At First Baptist, the Special Friends Ministry has helped Lindsay Graham’s son, now 6, with his behavioral problems. The children have their own room during the church service, but aren’t segregated from the rest of the congregation, which allows everyone to become more comfortable with each other.

“We want them to get used to being in Big Church and we want Big Church to get used to them,” said Michael Woods, Special Friends director.

And that has made all the difference for Lindsay and J.D.

“He’s happy. We’re happy,” she said. “It has really changed our lives.”

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Comments (12 Responses)

  1. Terri says:

    My daughter and I attend Damascus Road Community Church in Mt. Airy, MD. They have a wonderful special needs ministry called ” the Haven”. It is for people of all ages with special needs. They are in the “big” church for the praise (music) portion of the service, then go to their own classroom, which is in the gym. My daughter loves it there, and people are warm and friendly and don’t stare if someone is loud during praise time.

  2. CJ says:

    Wish my (former) church was a little more accommodating when my son was younger. All we needed was advance notice of tests for church school so WE could modify the tests. That’s all I asked for. Apparently I asked for too much. I hope this generation of children are welcomed more than the last.

  3. Janet says:

    Great article!

  4. fairlady68 says:

    One of the hardest things about being autistic is dealing with self-hatred and, in the face of that, trying to develop a satisfying relationship with God. I am glad that houses of worship are finally starting to recognize this. My symptoms are more subtle and don’t usually impact the worship service. (If I start to experience sensory overload, for example, I have given myself permission to leave quietly.) However, it still can be very hard for me to develop social relationships with the clergy and parishioners. This is not an easy task for many singles, since church life seems to favor families. When ASD is thrown into the mix, it can be even worse. Praise God that his servants are starting to recognize and reach out to those of us on the spectrum and with other disabilities, both visible and invisible.

  5. Linda says:

    If you happen to be Catholic, there is a wonderful organization to help people with intelelctual/developmental disabilities to develop their spirituality in a small group one-on-one environment. It is called SPRED (Special Religious Development) and has groups all over the world, though not everywhere. They can grow as much as the volunteer base will allow, so please think about volunteering! The focus is on creating a welcoming, connecting community of people who share values. It is not meant to be a bible study or Sunday school, but it IS a spiritual practice relating the beauty and delights of our life experiences to the Catholic Mass experience.

  6. Debbie Johnson says:

    I attend Living Hope Church in Green Bay, WI. We have “Able Church”, which meets a couple of times a week, with the service on Fridays. Worship, tithes collection, praying, and teaching is led by people with various types of disabilities. There are also individuals with cognitive disabilities serving as ushers, prayer team members, etc. with the general church body. The inclusion of individuals with disabilities has been a blessing for our church. I ams so thankful, as someone who has worked in this field for many years, to see the acceptance and willingness to assist, from our pastors, elders, and church body.

  7. Sheila Allee says:

    I love this article and am so glad that churches are realizing the need to be open and accepting to ALL people. I do a lot of public speaking about people with disabilities and my main message is that they want and need the same things as everyone else — love, acceptance, a sense of belonging and a chance to make a contribution to the world.

  8. Lauri Sue Robertson says:

    Synagogues and Temples have got a program that includes outreach to people who live with disabilities, called “Itenu” which means ‘together’. (I think). The biggest issue is always attitudes. It doesn’t matter how accessible a building is if the people inside aren’t tolerant and accepting of different needs and behaviours. It’s a slow-growth process, but it is getting better!

  9. Dianne & Kim Vander Weyden says:

    My husband Kim & I each have a disability. I have Cerebral Palsy & Kim has Epilepsy. Each since birth. We are Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Our Church accepts ANYONE with any ability level Around the World. We have Wards, Stakes and Temples around the World. All are Welcomed and Loved through Their Love for our Savior Jesus Christ.
    It is Who you are that matters not what you are.
    Dianne & Kim Vander Weyden

  10. Valerie says:

    I am very pleased to share that my synagogue, Temple Beth Zion in Buffalo, New York recently extended full individual membership status to an adult with special needs who has an immediate relative that is a temple member at no cost to the individual or the individual’s immediate relative/family.

    The Board adopted the new membership category to show that our temple is a caring, inclusive congregation. By doing this we are recognizing adults with special needs as adults members in our community and providing them all the benefits of belonging to the temple.

  11. Diane says:

    My issue is that once you find a church you really like and the board decides to move the special needs ministry to a Friday night ministry call “CR”. Really! I ask why they did that. I was told that special needs are considered a “mental issue” that needs to be work on. I lost my faith in that church! I found another church that I really like and again they had no special needs ministries for it 30,000 members. When I kept asking to meet with the pastor of that church to maybe help set up some kind of ministry. After several months of asking never heard one word. This is in the Gilbert/Mesa/Chandler area of Arizona. I am so totally disappointed in how churches not following. If you are going to be open church for the public then you need to provide for all no matter what. If you can’t follow the principles of the bible then how can you teach the truth of the Bible?

  12. Celine says:

    I’ve experienced this situation as well. I was diagnosed with autism and I’ve had rejection from some Christians. It is painful but remember God loves us and sent his only Begotten Son Jesus Christ to die for our sins. God will deal with those the reject us or act like it would have been better if we weren’t even alive. Jesus Christ isn’t like that and we Christians need to love everyone which is a challenge. We need to forgive those that hurt us so God can forgive us. If you’ve been rejected focus on those that love you. Many people don’t know how to be around a person with disabilities. This is not taught in schools or many homes, and the church needs to teach people to not discriminate

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