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«Sally Patton UNITARIAN UNIVERSALIST ASSOCIATION BOSTON Copyright © 2004 by the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations. All rights ...»

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may address only one issue, such as physical accessibility, rather than assess the overall ministry to people with disabilities. A special task force is more appropriate.

Make sure that representatives of all pertinent church groups serve on the task force, including but not limited to the governing body, the building and grounds committee, the music committee, the religious education committee, the adult programs committee, the worship committee, and the membership committee. The minister should also be a member of the task force or come to as many meetings as possible. His or her leadership on this issue is critical for the group’s long-term success.

Have the task force develop a statement of philosophy or mission concerning ministry to adults and children with disabilities and share that statement with the rest of the congregation and ask them to endorse it. To secure the congregation’s endorsement, offer disability awareness training that includes discussion groups, guest speakers, and parent and other adult testimonies about living with disability.

Once its mission statement has been approved, the task force can develop a five-year plan detailing specific goals and objectives for inclusion of adults, youth, and children with disabilities. This plan should also be endorsed by the entire congregation and approved by the governing body. The task force can then serve as the oversight committee for monitoring the five-year plan.

The task force can consider any of a number of topics in its meetings. A booklet by the National Organization on Disability (NOD), That All May Worship: An Interfaith Welcome to People

with Disabilities, suggests these topics and activities:

• Divide into small subgroups so that individuals have ample opportunities to exchange ideas.

• Discuss experiences within the congregation that may be creating barriers for people with disabilities and their families.

• Take time to examine the moral dilemma created when a congregation excludes or does not reach out to people with disabilities.

10 Welcoming Children

• Reflect on what it means to be human. What binds people together in community?

• Make a list of access problems someone with physical or sensory disabilities who is trying to enter or use the building would encounter.

• Consider policies and practices that could be discouraging to someone with a disability.

• Divide the list of barriers and problems by type.

• Strategize about fund-raising. Ideas might include urging the high school youth group to sponsor a needed program or inviting families to contribute money for a ramp or an enhanced sound system in honor or in memory of a family member.5 Provide Accessibility Resistance to renovating a building to make it accessible usually comes from a misunderstanding about the use of space. For instance, people may see only one member of the congregation who is in a wheelchair and secretly wonder about the expense to help just one individual. Present accessibility as a benefit to everyone.

Done with care, the process of making a building accessible can create a space that is livable, functional, and beautiful for all.

Ramps, accessible bathrooms, elevators, hand grips, and larger, more airy spaces help not only people in wheelchairs but also those in casts and on crutches, parents with strollers, people with arthritis and heart problems, pregnant women, small children, and the elderly. Talk about what image the church building conveys to the public. Does it feel open and welcoming or closed and inhospitable?

Making renovations all at once can be overwhelming, especially with old buildings. Take a look at what can be done in the short term and with minimal expense. If a child with a physical disability cannot get to the upstairs religious education room, consider having that group meet downstairs. If there is no place to put a wheelchair in the sanctuary, take out a pew. If someone is having 11 Accepting All Children into Our Faith Communities difficulty getting from the car to the building, designate a handicapped parking space close to the entrance. If someone who is visually impaired needs a braille version of the order of service, contact a local agency for the blind and visually impaired and ask for assistance. Some of these suggestions may seem obvious, but you would be surprised how often people overlook simple solutions.

Create a task force subcommittee to look at accessibility issues and draw up a specific five-year plan to incorporate into the overall five-year plan. You may find that your congregation has already addressed physical accessibility issues without considering the overall ministry to people with disabilities. There is a lot more involved in welcoming adults, youth, and children with disabilities than building a ramp or installing an elevator. Nevertheless, those churches that have already made these efforts are in a much better position to launch a congregationwide effort to be inclusive and inviting to all people.

Reach Out to People with Disabilities Once you have developed an awareness in your congregation concerning special needs, you can begin to reach out to adults, youth, and children with disabilities in your community. The task force can help and encourage this by identifying relevant agencies and letting them know that your church welcomes people with special needs. The word will spread.

Transportation to the church may be a barrier for some people with mobility issues or sight impairments. In order to serve these people, the congregation will need to address how these people can attend. Be aware that some parents may need help getting their children with disabilities to and from the church.

Since ushers are usually the first to greet people on Sunday morning, it is important to train them on how to greet people with disabilities graciously. According to the NOD, a motivating part of this training is to ask adults and children with disabilities to share their stories about what causes them to feel welcome or 12 Welcoming Children unwelcome in church. NOD offers these suggestions for ushers on

Sunday morning:

• Ask about a preferred location for seating.

• Seat a new person, especially one with a disability who arrives without a companion, with members who have agreed ahead of time. (Also suggest this for families with a special-needs child.)

• Offer audio loops, large-print or braille bulletins, and largeprint prayer books and hymnals.

• Request feedback on the effectiveness of mechanical devices, and report any that are not in good repair.

• Station someone near heavy swinging doors to assist those with mobility impairments.6 Make sure that any family that has a child with a disability connects with the congregation’s religious educator or religious education representative. If children are not involved in the service that morning, have someone bring the family to where the new child will be participating. If children are part of the service and the new child is having difficulty sitting still, offer some quiet materials to use in the pew, such as pipe cleaners, modeling clay, or drawing materials.

Issues of Social Justice and Advocacy Because our society often defines children with disabilities by their disability, parents must fight a constant battle to educate and advocate for their children. When they convey the uniqueness and wholeness of their children, they can transform the culture’s view and help heal that which separates us. Similarly, a congregation that commits to ministering to children with disabilities cannot help but be changed. The energy of this welcoming, transforming process will have a positive affect on all aspects of congregational life, so that no one group or individual will be separated out because of being different.

13 Accepting All Children into Our Faith Communities Children with special needs were granted the basic right to public education with the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975. While this revolutionary legislation drastically improved opportunities, the struggle continues to provide all children with needed services. In an era of shrinking school budgets, special education is sometimes blamed for consuming muchneeded resources. Parents may still have to fight hard for needed services from the school, but they should not have to struggle to find a spiritual home for their child and family. As one mother said, “Where can I bring my son if I cannot bring him to church?” Ministering to children with special needs is both a personal and social challenge. While our Unitarian Universalist congregations are not social service agencies, it is critically important to our ministry, religious education, pastoral care, and social advocacy that we understand the enormous difficulties and stresses experienced by families with special-needs children and youth. In order to provide an effective and compassionate ministry, we need to understand the complex spiritual, ethical, and moral concerns that affect how we as a society treat people with disabilities.

Many parents of special-needs children say that no one who does not have a child with a disability can ever truly understand what the experience is like. In many ways, this is true. However, it is not necessary for everyone to totally understand. Nor is it realistic. What we can hope for is that people will let go of their fear of disability and learn to see each child with special needs as a human being with the same right to be loved and respected as any other.

Parents bear the primary responsibility for educating people and advocating for their children. Yet by the time parents have exhausted themselves fighting for professional, medical, and educational services, they have little energy left to continue the fight in their religious communities. If the church is not initially welcoming, many of these families will leave. Even when a congregation makes a sincere but misinformed and halfway attempt at inclusion, the family may turn away in frustration. When this happens, some congregations will shrug and say they tried.

14 Welcoming Children Jennie’s story of her experience of trying to attend UU

churches illustrates the experience of many parents:

My son, Isaac, has autism. We tried attending a UU church in Illinois, but nobody knew how to watch or include my son, so it did not work out. Then we moved back to New England and attended another UU church. One volunteer tried to help figure out a way to include my son but could not arrange it on a regular basis and did not know how to approach the congregation. I did not have the energy to figure out how to make it work. We moved again, and since then, I have not tried going to any other churches. I want community and I want my son to be part of it. In some ways, he needs it more than anyone else—a sense of acceptance and belonging and welcome. Many people, particularly in the autism community, have shared how lonely they are for connection and for tolerance, and it is often least found in a religious setting.

A congregation can educate its members and develop a ministry that is welcoming to children with disabilities, but the efforts needed to include them in church life cannot be totally dependent on their parents. The entire congregation needs to embrace the complex challenges with significant commitment because this is an issue of social justice.

Ministering to children with differences helps us be more creative in our ministry to all children and reaffirm our beliefs. Lessons of compassion, caring, and acceptance benefit us all, young and old alike. Moreover, fighting for the rights of children with disabilities is an issue of social justice that Unitarian Universalist congregations can embrace. It is important that we not only welcome people with disabilities into our churches but that we also join them in their fight for equal access, education, pay, and opportunities. We deepen our faith when we embrace and fight for the vision of an inclusive community.

15 Accepting All Children into Our Faith Communities We should not miss opportunities to fight for social justice for children with disabilities who are already in our congregations. The following story of Hannah, a girl with multiple disabilities, illustrates a missed opportunity. Hannah’s religious education director and teachers planned a bonding experience for the Coming of Age youth at a nearby camp with a ropes course. Hannah’s mother was willing to accompany her daughter to the camp but told the religious education director that Hannah would probably not be able to do most of the activities. The director said that the camp would not allow someone who could not do all the activities to participate and that it was too late to plan something else. The mother was familiar with the course and felt that Hannah would like to walk along and watch or participate as much as she was able. The mother thought that this was not a safety issue but only a stated policy. And while the religious education director did not agree with the camp’s position, she did not want to disappoint the other children. Hannah was politely but definitely told to stay home.

The mother understandably saw this as a missed opportunity to teach social justice. She pointed out that instead of excluding a child with a disability from a key activity, the UU community could have banded together, involved the children in lodging a protest to the camp for discrimination against persons with disabilities, and engaged the class in researching and planning an activity that would include the entire group. Congregations can and should model for all their children that discrimination against people with disabilities is something we cannot tolerate.

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