All things are possible with God (Matthew 19:26), and our life together is deepened when we are ALL together. When ALL God’s people regardless of ability come together we all benefit. That’s why it is important for your church and youth group to take a moment to reflect on the simple ways you can make sure that you are open to people of all abilities.
A great place to start is using this acronym to imagine what is P-O-S-S-I-B-L-E. A little reflection and simple changes can truly transform your ministry.
The disability community reminds us that a person is more than their disability and to label them as the “deaf boy” or the “autistic girl” denies their personhood. Thus “People-First Labels” are a good rule to live by. If discussing a person with a disability it should begin with the words “person” or “people” such as: the person who uses a wheel chair for mobility, or the people who have vision loss.” Some other words never to use are: crippled, wheel-chair bound, deaf and dumb, mentally retarded, crazy and handicapped.
A person who cannot see but is fluent in braille is no longer “blind” if the church provides a bulletin embossed in braille. A person who uses a wheelchair is the same as a person who is able to walk if a ramp or an elevator is provided. In other words, the person is not “disabled” when the accessibility is in place. The work of the church is to remove the obstacles and “even the playing field” so that everyone can fully participate.
Remember that many people with disabilities through the years have been successful game-changers in society. Thomas Edison was deaf but he was an incredible scientist and inventor. Helen Keller became deaf and blind at a young age but she became a legendary activist for the education, employment and inclusion of people with disabilities. President Franklin D. Roosevelt had mobility challenges due to a bout with polio but he led the United States through one of the worst chapters in its history due to his tenacity and overcoming spirit. Harriet Tubman was an abolitionist and suffragette who led over 700 slaves to freedom before the Civil War. She suffered from seizures due to a brain injury that was a result of a blow to the head by a slave master. Harriet too was a great success in spite of and also because of her disability that gave her the courage to do her work.
Young people with disabilities want more than anything else to be included in the activities and circle of friendship at the church youth group. Many times they report that they are left-out or patronized but not treated like everyone else. This attitude of equality takes some teaching and some accessibility provision but it will make any youth group more successful when the full body of diversity is present in the group.
People who want to include a person with a disability or provide for their accessibly should simply ASK them what they need or want. Able-bodied people cannot assume that they know what a person needs. For example many people think that if there is a deaf person present that they would want a sign language interpreter. The truth is the vast majority of deaf and hard of hearing people in this country do NOT use sign language for communication. Listening devices or other kinds of visual supports (closed captioning, oral interpreting, sitting close to the speaker) are often their preference. Never assume you know, always inquire.
Brothers and Sisters
Very often in a family with a member who has a disability, that person can absorb a great deal of the family energy and concern. It is for good reason of course because families are trying to cope with the exceptional needs of the one with disabilities. However the siblings who do NOT have the disability often feel left out, or are expected to be the care-taker and never get to be their own unique person. Youth leaders and church families need to be on the look-out for this and be sure to check in with the able-bodied siblings to be sure they are not feeling overwhelmed or passed over.
When we say “laugh” we mean the good-natured humor that can dispel an awkward moment or put people at ease. We are never to laugh at or mock a person with a disability. But keeping things light with a touch of humor now and then can keep folks from being too stiff or nervous, especially if something goes wrong with a wheel chair or a cane or if there is some miscommunication. Laughter can be a “healing art.”
People with disabilities want to use their God-given gifts and ideas for the good of the whole. However, some times the able-bodied community is quick to decide everything and put themselves in the places of power and not even consider that a person with a disability can be a successful leader or offer an important contribution. Empowerment means teaching able-bodied people to stop and think and “get out of the way” in order to let a person with a disability shine.
Revs. Russell Ewell (Missouri AC), Rev. Hank Jenkins (Holston AC) and I used this tool as we taught a workshop about disabilities during Youth 2019.
The workshop also included the personal testimonies of Revs. Ewell and Jenkins, who told their life story. Both were in car accidents that left them with disabilities: Ewell with low vision and Jenkins with a mobility challenge. They spoke of the overcoming power of God who can do “all things to strengthen” them (Philippians 4:13) and called the participants to be “transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:2).
I taught the American Sign Language Alphabet and a few signs. I explained my journey into ministry with the Deaf Community was a result of being blind in my left eye at birth. The disability of blindness wedded me to the Deaf Community where I served the Christ UMC of the Deaf for 20 years in Baltimore. We ended the class with the signing of “We are Marching in the Light of God.” Indeed, we are marching in that light because we saw many new possibilities in the disability community.