June 11, 2018

Improving Inclusion – Part 2: Engagement

In my city, Fort Wayne, Indiana, AWS Foundation works to educate all of us about how to be graciously, respectfully, inclusive. The Foundation is where I first learned about “people first language” – words that move hearts from marginalizing others to including them (learn more here).

AWS Foundation CEO Patti Hays recalls as a child being taught, “It’s not polite to stare,” at someone with a disability. Today, she encourages parents to suggest, “Let’s go meet this person.”

Hays reminds us that the Americans with Disabilities Act provides minimum guidelines for removing barriers. Engaging people with varying abilities in the life of our faith communities may require some intentional learning and understanding.

One idea for increasing engagement is to host listening sessions in which people and families can express what makes them feel more or less welcome in the life of the congregation. People may mention things that those without disabilities may never have considered, such as:

  • A Sunday School environment where my child with autism is understood and accepted
  • Access to a large-print bulletin, hymnal and prayer book
  • A website that is compatible with my computer’s software that enlarges the pages
  • A restroom where I can help my husband with needs related to incontinence

If your community has an organization serving people with disabilities, invite a representative to tour your church property and review your programs to offer ideas for improving both access and engagement.

AWS Foundation offers some tips for healthy interactions (as found in the February 22, 2018, article, Disabilities Awareness Month):

  • Don’t make assumptions. People with disabilities are capable of doing most everything the rest of us can do. If you see someone struggling, ask if they want your help, don’t just jump in as if you know they can’t complete the task.
  • Don’t be afraid. A person with a disability is not sick. They are simply differently abled. Make eye contact, smile and say hello, just as you would anyone else.
  • Follow the “golden rule.” You know the one: Treat others as you would like to be treated. If you do that, then you can’t go wrong.

On any given Sunday, someone with a disability may come to your church. If you’ve made sure they can easily enter, how might you really get to know them and learn about their gifts for ministry?