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

Celebrating World Autism Day

I thought about the title of this post for awhile before deciding on “Celebrating World Autism Day.” At first I was going to title this “Honoring World Autism Day”, which would be a correct view of the day, but I decided to use of the word celebrating. Celebrations are happy, joyous gatherings with cake and balloons. Celebrations are a joyous recognition of something wondrous, such as the birthday  of a loved one; so ‘celebrating’ is the correct word.  What are we celebrating joyously with cake and balloons? The joy of sharing the world with wonderful people who have autism.

What is autism? The autism advocacy group Autism Speaks defines it as “Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and autism are both general terms for a group of complex disorders of brain development. These disorders are characterized, in varying degrees, by difficulties in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication and repetitive behaviors. Wikipedia describes autism as a disorder of neuro development. People who have autism interact with and interpret the world differently than more typical people. People who have autism are complexly different and complexly similar to other people. Today we are celebrating those differences and similarities. Today we are celebrating the lives of the 1 in 68 children who have autism around the globe.

What are we, as people of faith celebrating? All people are amazing gifts from God to each other. Today we are celebrating the wonderful gifts that people who have autism bring to the world. We are celebrating the opportunity that we have to journey through life with people who have autism, their families and their caregivers. We are celebrating the joy of sharing our faith with people who interpret the world differently. We are celebrating God at work across the entire spectrum of humanity.