Young people with disabilities and their families want more than to be integrated or included. “They want to experience belonging,” said Dr. Erik Carter during a lecture at Brigham Young University.
“We foster belonging not through programs but through relationships,” Carter said. And those relationships come from simple ordinary gestures.
1. To be present
It is hard to feel like you are part of a community from the outside. It helps to get people with disabilities engaged in programs, congregations, religious activities, and youth programs or teen groups. Break down the barriers that stand in the way of people becoming present in our communities.
2. To be invited
Many organizations say they are welcoming on their websites, their church signs, and their outreach materials, but those actions are not enough. “While that’s worthwhile to do, it is not sufficient,” he said. We actually need to be welcoming personally.
3. To be welcomed
Recognizing that some people experience uncertainty when they are around people with disabilities — worrying about what to say or not to say — Carter said it is important to continue to reach out. It’s not always about the exact words that are said, but rather how a person feels in a situation.
Ordinary actions can send a powerful message. Small acts such as greeting new families when they arrive, introducing them to others, drawing them into conversations, inviting to other church events, involving them in smaller groups, noticing absences and following up to know why they are gone, are simple ways to reach out that are very effective.
4. To be known
There is a difference between being “known about” and being “known.” Oftentimes a person with a disability is labeled by their disability, but it is more important to be known by their names, strengths, gifts and positive qualities.
5. To be accepted
Only a little more than half of parents strongly agreed that clergy and congregational leaders accepted their child in a congregation. Slightly less than half strongly agreed that other congregation members accepted their child.
6. To be supported
How a person or family is supported is often on a personal, case-to-case basis. Less than half of parents have ever been asked about the best way to include their son or daughter in religious education activities.” So, ask good questions.
7. To be cared for
Healthy communities care for one another. They recognize and strive to support the spiritual needs of the families in their congregation but also the emotional practical needs of their members. That care communicates that you matter, that you belong.
8. To be befriended
For many people with disabilities, their circle of friends only includes family members and people who are paid to help them — such as staff and aides.
Research shows that more than half of the youth in high school with autism had not been invited to a social activity with peers even once in the previous year.
Although we can’t mandate friendships, we should strive to live life beyond the walls of our congregation and push people from mere acquaintances towards close friendships. Friendship develops as a person includes another person — whatever their abilities — in those ordinary gestures like sharing a meal, participating in a favorite hobby, going to the mall, or watching a game together.
9. To be needed
Rather than just ministering to people with disabilities, it is important to include people with disabilities in ministering to others. Like everyone else, people with disabilities need to feel needed. Our faith community has much to gain by encountering the gifts of people with disabilities and their families. When that mutuality is expressed we start to see real, deep, lasting belonging happening for families.
10. To be loved
The scriptures remind us over that everything we do should be marked by love. Service systems are not designed to love, but the church is. It is through simple actions that everyone in a congregation will feel welcomed and a sense of belonging. It’s not always about the exact words that are said, but rather how a person feels in a situation.
From the Church News article “Ten simple ways to create a sense of belonging for children and adults with disabilities.”