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.”