Special Needs Ministry for All

This is the third post in our on-going conversation about special needs ministry. Our most recent conversation defined what special needs ministry is: Reaching out in unique ways to unique people to include them, get to know them, offer them the opportunity to know God and to understand the cherished place they have as His daughters and sons.
This raises a question- if special needs ministry boils down to including people, how is this category of ministry any different from general ministry? Isn’t one of the purposes of a faith community to include people? Isn’t a community intended to offer people a place to belong and to connect? A vital faith-community should be a place where all people, regardless of age, gender, size, ability, social status, employment or financial status, are welcomed.
A ministry directed solely at addressing the perceived needs of people with disabilities misses the mark of honoring the unique needs and gifts of all of the community members. The core values of special needs advocacy can be applied to every person in our faith communities.
One of the core values of people with disabilities is the necessity of their presence in the world. In the recent histories of humankind people with disabilities were hidden away in back rooms or locked behind tall institutional fences and walls, and dependent upon paid professionals for survival. In general, they were not allowed to be part of the greater world. As the wrongness of the institutional model of care and living became evident people with disabilities advocated for their right to be part of the greater society, to have a place in our communities, to be present and their worth honored. The core value of presence and worth of all people is rooted in the ancient Scriptures that tell us that God created humanity in His own image: So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them (Genesis 1:27). People with varying and differing abilities are all created in the image of God. If all people are God’s image bearers, than should not all people be welcomed as unique expressions of God’s image ? As unique expressions of God’s image all people come to a community with unique abilities and gifts. All people should have the opportunity to be present. Presence is not ability or disability dependent.
Another core value of people with disabilities is the validity of their voices and experiences. Every person comes to our faith communities with personal stories, dreams, fears and gifts. Each person’s story that has brought them to our communities of faith has to be listened to. The stories may include exclusion and pain; they may be experiences of understanding and acceptance; they may be stories that are familiar and comfortable, or they may challenge our personal stereotypes of people with different abilities or social statuses. The stories and experiences are real and have shaped each person. The stories of all people need to be heard.
The final core value I want to touch on is the “nothing about me without me” mantra of disabilities advocates. Would faith community leaders make plans for youth ministry without including the youth of the community? What about senior citizen ministry or single parent’s ministries? In the development of intentional, informed ministries the voiced needs and desires of the target group are the guide. The same listening strategy needs to be employed if developing a ministry for people with special needs. Their voices and experiences have to be included, even if their voices tell us that they do not want a separate ministry, but that their experiences and gifts belong in the greater community of faith.

Special needs ministry and general ministry share a definition: Reaching out in unique ways to unique people to include them, get to know them, offer them the opportunity to know God and to understand the cherished place they have as His daughters and sons. Special needs ministry is all people’s needs in ministry.

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What is ‘Special Needs Ministry’?

Our most recent conversation introduced a new series called Back to Basics in regards to the intersection of faith and disability. The first topic we looked at was the meaning of the phrase developmental disability. The second topic we are going to discuss is ‘What is Special Needs Ministry?’

When people refer to special needs ministry they are referring to how a faith community includes people with developmental or physical or mental illness disabilities into their worship services and the practice of their faith. What are these different disabilities and what do they mean to ministry? In our previous post we discussed that a developmental disability begins in utero, at birth or in childhood; the disability may impair the body, learning needs, communication and/or behavior; the disability will likely be lifelong (i.e. autism or cerebral palsy).

A physical disability may occur at any time in a person’s life and the impairment may impact fine and/or gross motor skills, communication, vision or auditory processes, cognitive processing or varying degrees of pain and the ability to function in a typical manner. The effects of some physical disabilities are visible (i.e. loss of a limb) and some are not (i.e. arthritis or autoimmune disorders). Mental illness refers to a chemical imbalance in the brain that impacts thinking processes, emotional skills or communication abilities (i.e. obsessive-compulsive disorder or anxiety).

It is possible for there to be overlaps from one or more classifications of disability to another. A person may be born with a developmental disability and acquire a physical disability later in life; or a person may have a physical disability and also live with a mental illness. A person may have a physical disability and no cognitive delays. The UN has found that 15% of the world’s population has a significant physical or mental disability.

What do these three definitions, that are broad categories for over 15% of the world’s population, mean to people of a faith-community who have a desire to reach out to people with disabilities in their communities? There is a saying within the autism community: If you have met one person with autism, you have met one person with autism. This means that attempts to understand a person starting with her or his label is limiting. The focus of special needs ministry needs to be on the person; the person is more important than her or his impairment. The impairment is real and cannot be trivialized, but it is only one facet of a complex person.

Back to the title of this post: What is Special needs Ministry? It is reaching out in unique ways to unique people to include them, get to know them, to offer them the opportunity to know God and to understand the cherished place they have as His daughters and sons. It is offering a safe place to discover who God created them (us) to be and to use the gifts and talents that God has given. Hmmm, special needs ministry sounds a lot like how we share God’s love with all people.

Let’s Start at the Very Beginning

Recently I was asked some questions about special needs ministry. The questions were birthed from the sincere desire to provide excellent pastoral care but originated from a heart with very little knowlege and almost no relationships with people who have developmental disabilities.  I have been in relationship with people with developmental disabilitis since my childhood and a professional in the field for over 35 years.  I sometimes forget that assumptions, myths and old-school ideas may be all the information that a person or a faith community has for basing ministry with people with developmental concerns. Sometimes I incorrectly assume that the person I am in conversation with has more knowlege or experience than they actually have.

So, let us get back to the basics!

What is a developmental disability? The United States Center for Disease Control and Prevention defines developmental disabilities as: a group of conditions due to an impairment in physical, learning, language, or behavior areas; these conditions begin during the developmental period, may impact day-to-day functioning, and usually last throughout a person’s lifetime. In layperson’s terms a developmental disability begins in utero, at birth or in childhood; the disability may impair the body, learning needs, communication and/or behavior; the disability will likely be lifelong.

The term ‘developmental disability’ is a very broad term that includes people with cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, epilepsy, muscular dystrophy, many chromosomal aberrations and those who are diagnosed within the autism spectrum, and a myriad of others who have delays and disabilities of undiagnosed origin. The disability begins in childhood and remains throughout the person’s lifespan. For example, a child with Down syndrome will grow to be an adult with Down syndrome; she will never out grow her medical diagnosis. However, while she will always be a person with Down syndrome, she is first and foremost a person with gifts, talents, dreams, purpose, depth, relationships, knowledge and life experience that all combine to make her an amazing person.

Of interest to me regarding our on-going conversation about faith and disability is the knowledge that while disability impacts a person’s body and learning or thinking processes, it does not touch a person’s spirit! A person’s spirituality is their expression of their broader values and beliefs— “beliefs and practices that connect [them] with sacred and meaningful entities and emotions (1).” A person may have profound developmental disabilities and still be a perfectly whole and sound spiritual being!

In future blogs in this series we will explore spirituality, faith and disability with an eye for laying a firm foundation of the basics of understanding them.

(1) Alzheimer’s Association, Learning Institute, Rochester, NY