For people with disabilities, taking part church life can be difficult. I asked Heather Peacock to share her perspective with us. Heather is a pastor’s wife and mother of two girls. Her daughter, Hope, has faced some significant health challenges in the last 5 years. For unknown reasons Hope went into full cardiac arrest two days after a routine tonsillectomy. The event left her with a severe anoxic brain injury. Today Hope is still in a wheelchair and cannot see, but her mom shared with me that Hope is fully integrated into grade 9, on the principal’s list for an average over 90%, and most encouragingly, Hope was able to share her testimony and be baptized in January 2017! I asked Heather how we can do a better job of welcoming people with disabilities into the church. Here’s what she said. – Christel Humfrey
1. Get to Know Them
Welcoming people with disabilities is less about having special programming and more about gracious and compassionate people who look for ways to be inclusive and accommodating.
Ask a family how you can best serve them and have them into your home! This extends fellowship to them that pulls them out of isolation. We are often asked if our daughter is able to get into homes without a wheelchair ramp. I love it when people ask me these questions, rather than just avoid inviting us into their home. We are used to creatively approaching life every day, and we love to be invited into your home or into your family activities!
2. Be Creative
Think of family activities that a child with disabilities can take part in. Sometimes you may need to sacrifice your preferences, but think of what it means to a family with such limited options to have that opportunity for inclusive family fellowship!
If a church event doesn’t work for a family of a child with a disability to attend (such as a family ski trip), offer to take the siblings along with your family, or even offer to stay with the child and send the parents with their other children so they can have the opportunity to invest in all their children.
3. Earn Parents’ Trust
When attempting to offer childcare, keep in mind that these precious kiddos have various special needs and potential health issues that make it very hard for parents to feel able to leave them with even well-meaning people who offer their help. Parents can also feel guilty for taking you up on your offer because they know it won’t be easy for you.
Don’t take a one time offer as enough! Offer again! Offer to come and spend time with their child while they are home so you can get to know them and earn their trust. It will mean the world to them!
4. Offer Inclusive Youth Events
Offering inclusive youth events as much as possible is beyond wonderful for the kids. For example, our youth group did a photo scavenger hunt around town, and the youth leader made a great call to start holding their photo scavenger hunts in the mall. So now everyone gets dropped off and they don’t have to worry about getting in/out of the wheelchair van as they complete their scavenger hunt.
5. Teach Your Children to Befriend Kids That Are Different from Them
If there is one thing that breaks my heart more than anything, it’s the lack of teaching from believing parents to their children on how to befriend peers who are different than them. Regardless of their level of cognition, kids love when people include them, talk to them and spend time with them.
I’ve heard from parents in the Cerebral Palsy Association that their kids with cerebral palsy enjoy time spent with peers more than anyone. The importance of parents teaching their children to have compassion and be intentional in this effort cannot be emphasized enough. Our Lord Jesus Himself, spoke of the importance of loving the “least of these” (Matthew 25:40). Don’t let your kids miss out on this opportunity of mutual blessing and the ability to grow in Christ-like character!
6. Provide Meals
Provide meals for the family from time to time, but especially when they are going through a difficult time of health issues. Our church has adopted a ministry of keeping freezer meals stocked up to provide at a moment’s notice to families in need. Dropping off freezer meals is an immense blessing. This provides the family with a quick meal option on a hectic day.
7. Look for Ways to Allow People with Disabilities to Serve
Everyone has unique giftings and character traits that can be a blessing to the church body. One of my delights is thinking creatively about how we can allow every individual in the body of Christ to be able to serve.
Our daughter serves on the welcome team. She came up with a short greeting that she was able to use to personally greet every person that walks through the door. She cannot see, but she notices movement and her hearing is superb, so she is easily able to identify when people are walking by the name tag table. At times she will offer a name tag to someone who has already taken one, but these are opportunities for the body of Christ to respond graciously and to even be ministered to by the example of a blind teenager willing to put herself in a position where she could look silly, for the purpose of serving the church as unto the Lord!
8. Talk to people with disabilities
I really can’t emphasize this enough. Our family is very gracious to people as they are figuring this out. Someone will come and ask me a question about Hope as she sits right next to me. I do not act offended and our daughter is very gracious about this as well. We look at it as opportunities to educate people on disabilities. I will respond with something like this, “Thank you for asking! Hope, did you want to answer that yourself or would you prefer mom to answer for you?”
When you see a person with disabilities, some people will quickly look away to not appear rude. Staring is rude, but catching their eyes and smiling at them, and then walking over to say hello and visit with them, that is awesome and incredibly meaningful!
When you talk to people with disabilities, avoid an overly slow, fast, baby, or a louder voice. Calm and quiet is usually best as many people with various kinds of brain injuries are easily overstimulated or even frightened with noise.
Go to their eye level! I will often squat down to the eye level of a child when I talk to them. You can do the same with someone in a wheelchair. Sit down in a chair to talk with them at their eye level.
If you talk to our daughter who is blind, she will tell you that introducing yourself when you say hello is very helpful, such as, “Hi Hope, it’s Heather. Great to see you today!” She will also tell you that she is very used to hearing, “Hi Hope!” Often though, that’s all that is said, and she has wisely challenged us with this statement, “Mom, when people say, “Hi Hope” to me, that is being friendly, but when someone continues after hello and talks with me, that is friendship!”