More recently, the topic of improving inclusion within communities of worship has been increasingly more popular in literature and an existing need for families who are a part of faith-based communities. But we often mistake the word “inclusion” for physical inclusion. Although physical accommodations are important, they do not address the social and emotional accommodations for individuals with disabilities and their families. Most times, it is the attitude of a faith-based community that can prevent inclusion.

Why is faith important?

Taking part of a religious or spiritual community is key for families of individuals with a disability. For a family, there is a strong need for social support and opportunities for socialization. Since going out is a particularly tough endeavor for families of individuals with disabilities, there is a strong feeling of isolation among these families, when frankly, social support for these families is a necessity to help cope with the stressors of having a disability or caregiving. Often times what happens is that families will feel discouraged from coming to a place of worship based on the attitudes of others. According to a study done by Ault et al. (2013) about disability inclusion in faith communities, out of 416 parents, 55.8% of families kept children from participating due to lack of support, 46.6% did not feel welcome, and 32% changed place of worship because they did not feel welcome. An Interactive Autism Network blog focused on researching the impact of the faith-based community on individuals with Autism stated,

Many parents had positive stories to tell, but others had incredibly sad stories to tell of discrimination and negative attitudes. However, all spoke about the experiences with passion. They either described many stories of acceptance and love or were affected negatively when a negative experience occurred.”

For spaces and facilities that should be the most welcoming of diversity of backgrounds and abilities, the attitudinal barrier in places of worship is a problem that needs to be addressed.

Move from inclusion to belonging

The attitude of a community on disability-related issues spawns from stereotypes about what disability is. They might believe that individuals with disabilities do not have the ability to participate, to learn, or to relate to others. In other words, people with disabilities are different and different is bad. But the fact of the matter is, everyone is different. Difference only becomes a problem if that is the only thing someone focuses on, which is what a community does when promoting inclusion. If inclusion is based on identifying what is different about an individual and only accommodating for what is different, the person will only be seen as someone different and further separate from others. Thus, a community has to work to establish a sense of belonging. Belonging entails a community to be open to others, serve others and honor the gifts each individual possesses. By doing this, the focus will shift from difference to similarity.

Tips to establish belonging in a faith-based community

Results of a study conducted by Griffin et al. (2012) showed that the most inclusive and embracing faith-based communities include the following aspects:

  1. Feature faith leaders who are committed to inclusion. Offer accommodations to families to encourage participation among all abilities (i.e., Braille books, interpreters at sermons, etc.). Invite individuals with disabilities to take part in the community, as a part of school, service, and faith-based programs.
  2. Use educational resources to address disability-related issues. The more disability is seen, the more it is normalized. Provide social and support groups at your place of worship for individuals with disabilities and their families. Develop a mentorship program with the individuals with disabilities.
  3. Portray people with disabilities positively in religious teachings. There are many individuals in the history of monotheistic religions who had a disability, but were seen as someone more than that. Ask your faith leader to deliver a sermon on these religious figures. Include these individuals within the faith-based school curricula.
  4. Have strong ties to disability organizations. Reach out to local day-programs or group homes, establish a relationship, and collaborate with them on faith-based projects. Arrange rides to attend services at the place of worship.
  5. Stronger orientation towards promoting social justice. Develop a coalition of allies and advocates to promote change and acceptance in the larger community.

References

Ault, M. J., Collins, B. C., & Carter, E. W. (2013). Congregational participation and supports for children and adults with disabilities: Parent perceptions. Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, 51(1), 48-61.

Griffin, M. M., Kane, L. W., Taylor, C., Francis, S. H., & Hodapp, R. M. (2012). Characteristics of Inclusive Faith Communities: A Preliminary Survey of Inclusive Practices in the United States. Journal of Applied Research in Intellectual Disabilities, 25: 383-391.