Columbus, Ohio — When Debra Petermann was growing up in the 1960s and ’70s, church wasn’t a big part of her life.

Her brother, with his severe cognitive disabilities and related behaviors, didn’t “fit in,” she said, so their family couldn’t attend religious services together.

They turned away from the community of faith and turned instead to community resources that supported them and assured them that they were not alone.

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Fifty years later, the Worthington woman has devoted her life to helping religious communities find ways to welcome families living with special needs.

As church-relations program manager for the Ohio office of the Joni and Friends International Disability Center, she challenges faith leaders to reach out and learn from the myriad of community resources that serve people with disabilities.

“As the world changes, not much has changed among churches in preparing the welcome mat for families affected by disability,” Petermann said. “Churches must do better offering a heart of welcome, not just an accessible entryway.”

While 57 percent of people without disabilities attend religious services at least once a month, so do 50 percent of people with disabilities, according to a 2010 Kessler Foundation Survey by Harris Interactive. For people with somewhat or very severe disabilities, the attendance rate is 46 percent.

The Rev. Joseph Kovitch, priest-in-charge at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church in Westerville, lost the use of his legs 10 years ago following a surgery to remove a tumor inside his spinal cord. He uses his wheelchair to encourage people to open up about their own brokenness and to empathetically accept the brokenness in others.

“We all have our own inner wheelchair,” he said. “I think disability can come in mind, body and spirit.”

Faith leaders and their congregations should not treat people with disabilities as mission projects but should listen to their stories and meet them where they are, Kovitch said. That could mean kneeling to talk to someone in a wheelchair, welcoming the outburst of a child with autism as part of the liturgy or developing an alternative way to administer sacraments so a girl with spina bifida can be confirmed.

“The church can create a culture of shame or a culture of presumed wholeness,” Kovitch said. “We need to let them teach us how to serve them and not presume how they need to be served.”

In addition to considering lifelong disabilities, congregations also should be mindful of the aging of both their clergy and their members, and of military veterans’ continued recovery from the physical and emotional wounds of service.

U.S. Census figures indicate that about 12.1 percent of non-institutionalized Americans live with a disability.

But if one child in a family has a disability such as autism and is made to feel unwelcome during services, then 100 percent of the family members will feel unwelcome, said Esther Kaltmann, who co-directs the Lori Schottenstein Chabad Center in New Albany with her husband, Rabbi Areyah Kaltmann.

“We want to be able to treat everybody as we would treat ourselves, and not do things for people but do things with people,” she said.

Instead of assigning a person with Down syndrome the role of passing out books, for example, ask that person how he or she wants to participate. Full inclusion comes, Kaltmann said, when families don’t have to ask for special services but can expect that their needs will be met.

Congregations by and large want to learn how to create “the Starbucks experience” — where “no matter what your needs are, it’s accessible, it’s built in, it’s part of the fabric,” she said. It’s a matter of learning how that can be done without exorbitant costs.

Demand has led to a new Ruderman Chabad Inclusion Initiative with a goal of educating 4,200 Chabad Jewish communities around the world. Kaltmann said educating congregants is key: If presented with a need, they likely can work together to find solutions and help one another.

Roman Catholic congregations have been responding to needs for years, with members of faith communities addressing issues as they come up, said Erin Cordle, director of human development and relief services for the Columbus diocese.

“We all take care of each other,” she said. “A parish is a family. Once a need is defined and the concern is raised, I think people rally pretty quickly.”

For example, the Special People in Catholic Education program was started by the family of a student with Down syndrome at St. Catharine Elementary School in Bexley, said Jerry Freewalt, who directs the rural-life and parish social-concerns ministries for the diocese. The program has expanded into other diocesan schools as well as other states, he said.

The Catholic Church, like many faith groups and denominations, has an initiative that helps its parishes and other institutions find ways to be more inclusive of people with disabilities.

The goal is to integrate people with disabilities — in Catholic churches, schools, hospitals, nursing homes, low-income housing — rather than provide separate programs for them, Freewalt said, and the church continues to search for new ways to make inclusion a reality. Among them: a smartphone app is being developed to help people with autism during Mass.

Sometimes separate programs are needed, said Petermann, a volunteer director at Vineyard Columbus. The church offers both a Body Builders class and a Joyful Noise: No Shushing Allowed service, which attract teens and adults with developmental disabilities.

Some churches offer gentle worship services, which are shorter and offer softer music for families with special needs.

At the seminary level, Kovitch said he has been teaching the “spirituality of disability” as part of a course on the Care of Souls at Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Bexley. The school also offers a Disability Ministry course, and Kovitch has been asked to teach a course on Spirituality and Disability in the fall.

Among the roadblocks to inclusion are ignorance, indifference and a misconception that addressing disabilities will place a burden on the church or the pastor, Petermann said.

But churches don’t have to reinvent the wheel, and they can add their own faith dimensions. That’s where the experience of congregants and the expertise of community groups can come in, she said.

“We can offer a family a bigger picture … the hope that we are never alone, God has designed each person to be who they are, and he has a plan for each of us,” she said.

“The church should be the safe place for a person to find out what that plan is. Start one person at a time.”

Reluctance could have roots in biblical texts that associate disabilities with sin and in so-called “ugly laws” that prohibited people with severe diseases or disfigurements from being seen in public, Kovitch said.

Columbus was among the cities with such a law; its “Exposing Self When Unsightly” ban was repealed in 1973.

Such laws and attitudes go against the teachings of Jesus, who spent his time with sinners and was resurrected with the wounds from his Crucifixion intact, Kovitch said.

“What does that say about how we look at the body of Christ the church?” he said. “If we say that everyone is welcome, then we need to live that out in radical, radical hospitality, that everyone has the right to be fully welcomed.”

In the Old Testament, God appeared to Moses, not as a magnificent towering tree but as a low-lying burning bush, Rabbi Kaltmann said.

“It’s a merciful God who accepts everyone the way they are, and everyone has a job and a mission and a purpose to fulfill, and who are we and what are we to judge?” he asked.

At the Chabad House, the Kaltmanns oversee LifeTown, a nonreligious program for students with special needs in schools across central Ohio. The realistic indoor “city” is designed to help the children learn life skills by role-playing at sites that include a bank, a theater, a medical office and a library.

Esther Kaltmann said the program is designed to be inclusive of mentors without disabilities so both groups can learn from each other.

On a February day, a boy visiting the site brought tears to the eyes of a volunteer by saying, “I have autism, but when I go to heaven, I won’t. I’ll be regular.”

“My response is, ‘You don’t have to go to heaven to be accepted,'” Kaltmann said. “‘Now, you are part of this world, part of everybody else. You don’t need to wait ’til heaven.'”

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