Our church facility is going to undergo a major transformation over the course of the next few months. One of the major improvements will be in the area of accessibility. This was one of the driving values behind the project from the very beginning. A number of our families have pursued special needs adoption and we have entered into a vibrant partnership with Olivia’s Gift, a local home for disabled adults. We wanted to prepare the way for the medically fragile and those with disabilities to navigate our facility with ease and dignity and enable them to fully engage in the life of the community.
But of course our desire is that these external improvements will be accompanied by continued internal renovation. Ultimately, it takes more than facilities and programs to truly welcome people into the family of God. When it comes to recognizing all persons as image bearers of God, churches ought to be leading the way. But unfortunately, we have often lagged behind.
Erik Carter, the Cornelius Vanderbilt Professor of Special Education at Vanderbilt University, challenged churches with his latest book Including People with Disabilities in Faith Communities. His research reveals that nearly 20% of the individuals in any community have a disability. But many times they are not present in the church because they do not feel welcome and they do not feel valued. 56% kept their child with disabilities from participating because of lack of support. Only 46% of parents believe the congregation accepts their child with a disability.
One of the recent emphases in educational settings has been inclusion. We don’t just provide a separate class for individuals with disabilities. As much as possible, we create opportunities for disabled individuals to learn and serve alongside of their abled peers. And certainly this ought to be true in the church as well. We long for every follower of Jesus to experience a place of belonging. It is not just about “ministry to” disabled individuals. Rather it is about “ministry with” disabled individuals. We need to recognize not only their deficits but also their gifts and abilities. Without their contributions, the church is incomplete.
Photo credit: Susan Paras / Olivia’s Gift