Over the past two years, I’ve had the honor of working with parents and practitioners who minister to children and adults with disabilities. Time and time again, main themes emerge as potential roadblocks to working with those who require something a little different than your average presentation of the faith. Three themes follow, along with some wisdom I’ve gained along the way
Creating a Welcoming Environment
One common roadblock is a congregation or a class that doesn’t fully welcome an individual with special needs. Sadly, individuals or families may sometimes be turned away from attending services or classes or receiving sacraments. Here are a few tips that might help change minds and hearts so all of God’s children are welcomed in community:
- Invite experts in the field of disability to speak to your audience about the importance of welcoming those with special needs. Invite speakers to emphasize that an individual with special needs does indeed have a spiritual life and should be invited to participate.
- Help others use “people first” language in which words place the person before the disability, such as she has autism versus she is autistic. A simple Internet search can provide many positive examples.
- Adapt spaces and seating arrangements so everyone can feel included.
- Provide adaptive faith-related materials, such as The Adaptive First Eucharist Preparation Kit or The Adaptive Reconciliation Kit by Loyola Press.
Teaching to Strengths
Teaching individuals with disabilities requires us to look at each person uniquely, to identify his or her strengths, and to differentiate our approach. Try these ideas to help teach to a person’s strengths:
- Talk with family members. Find out what works and what doesn’t in school and social settings. What motivates this person? What calms him or her? What causes anxiety or discomfort? What assistive materials might help this person?
- Watch for feedback, facial, physical, or verbal. Being a careful observer can help you assess a person’s level of comfort or understanding.
- Modify and adapt your approach. For example, if a person has a physical disability, consider presenting ideas visually or verbally. If a person has difficulty maintaining attention, make the learning hands-on and active.
Recognizing Signs of a Disability
Take some time to learn about the disabilities of those you serve. Pay attention to characteristics that might be misinterpreted as irreverence or inappropriate behavior. Chances are, these behaviors are signs of a disability. These characteristics are often signs of a disability that should be received with tolerance and compassion:
- involuntary movements such as tics, tremors, or vocalizations
- lack of eye contact
- inability to give a verbal response or a confusion in providing a gestural response (such as shaking head no when the individual means yes)
- difficulty swallowing
- holding ears, pacing, or other gesture that signals sensory issues
So let’s remove the roadblocks and work together to help those with special needs experience the richness of a relationship with Jesus and with those who share their faith. We all have different abilities. We are all needed. We are all valued.
Joellyn Cicciarelli is a national workshop presenter and the director of curricula development at Loyola Press, who oversaw and helped develop the Adaptive First Eucharist Preparation Kit and the Adaptive Reconciliation Kit.