November 2018
Hospitality and Outreach

Welcoming Adults with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities

During the first few months of 2018, I spent many hours visiting churches where adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) were vibrant participants in parish life. I interviewed adults with IDD, as well as their family, friends, clergy and lay leaders to learn their views on belonging, Christian identity and baptism.

Many of the stories I heard were filled with challenge and pain. Adults with IDD spoke of being asked to leave because of disruption, of receiving an initial welcome and then realizing that no one was committed to being in relationship with them, of being excluded from events or programs like Bible studies and redirected to “special needs” ministries.

The stories came as no surprise. Since the deinstitutionalization of people with IDD in the 1960s, the population continues to struggle with significantly heightened loneliness (Gilmore and Cuskelly, 2014), and while more than 80% of adults with IDD report their faith as important or very important, fewer than half attend church regularly (Carter et al., 2015). People with more profound and multiple disabilities and those living in residential settings such as group homes are even less likely to attend church.

Called to help all God’s people flourish

But alongside these stories of hurt, I heard others of great beauty – stories of creative avenues for liturgical participation for people with and without disabilities, stories of belonging, of churches that are becoming families of choice for people with IDD and congregations that have become places of empowerment and leadership for these adults.

For those of us in The Episcopal Church, the service of Holy Baptism and baptismal reaffirmation provides strong encouragement to help all the baptized flourish. In the baptismal covenant, the celebrant asks, “Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?” and, “Will you strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being?”

Before responding, we might well consider what practices we could embrace with regard to adults with IDD so that can faithfully answer, “We will, with God’s help.”

Ways we can welcome and incorporate adults with IDD into our parish life

  • Visit group homes and other residential settings in your community. Many adults with IDD living in group homes are disconnected from churches. They may no longer have a local family member who consistently enables their participation in church. Volunteer to spend time with people at group homes, or even better, spend time with them and invite them to church! Group homes typically have transportation options for people with mobility needs and are required to support adults with IDD in meeting their spiritual needs. But this is a two-way road – make it known that your parish is welcoming of people with IDD!
  • Seek opportunities for participation, beyond inclusion alone, for adults with IDD. Inclusion recognizes that someone is in the room or attends a church event (a good place for many Episcopal Churches to start!), but that person may not be a participant. Belonging is when someone is missed, when we love and consider them and their gifts as an indispensable part of our community. (Swinton, 2012)
  • Focus on opportunities for participation. People with IDD may wish to serve in a number of ways but may never have been asked to do so. Consider pairing someone with IDD with another lay leader to participate in greeting, reading, coffee hour, ushering or acolyting. You don’t need to say words to participate in most of these activities! One parent I talked with reflected on the acolyte at her son’s baptism: “There was a young adult with Down syndrome who was an acolyte when [my son] was baptized…it was a hopeful thing.” Now that child is an adult (who has Down syndrome and does not speak for communication). His mother sees his active participation in his home parish, where he serves as a choir assistant, passing out bulletins and assisting in coffee hour.
  • Consider inviting adults with IDD into pre-existing church gatherings – praying together, eating together and studying the Bible together. Special “disability ministries” can often work against encouraging the full belonging and participation in the life of a church for people with IDD. One practice I typically use, following the wonderful example of folks at Reality Ministries, is “circle time.” It’s a practice for introducing new folks to one another, or to simply do a “check-in.” One question is asked to the whole group. For example, “share a single word, facial expression or gesture to share how you’re doing today.” This kind of practice enables both speakers and non-speakers to engage, and can also offer more concise starts to “get to know you” events and meetings!
  • Lean into the liturgy! The beautiful repetition of the liturgy can help people with and without disabilities to connect deeply in worship. It can bring comfort, familiarity and new opportunities for learning. One particular practice that I commend is more frequent occasions for baptismal remembrance/reaffirmation. It is a multi-sensory practice that can get everyone involved – singing a familiar hymn or song at each occasion for baptismal reaffirmation, making sure folks get wet with the baptismal waters, hearing or seeing the water poured out, walking or rolling to the font, repeating the words of the baptismal covenant that remind us of our identity in Christ and the vocation of all the baptized. These are practices that not only include people through a variety of senses (not just cognitive understanding), but also shape church communities, forming a heightened sense of the identity of all the baptized, including people with IDD, as disciples of Jesus. As a lay leader I interviewed said so eloquently, “baptism is a wordless way of preaching.” Amen!
  • Need more specific ideas for cultivating belonging and encouraging participation among parishioners with IDD? Partner with someone in your local community or even your own parish! Do you know an occupational therapy practitioner or a special educator? Your local independent living association? A self-advocacy group for adults with IDD? Local offices for your state IDD council? A social worker? A community support professional? Working toward the belonging of people with IDD can open up new opportunities for community partnerships, deepening our parish connections with our neighbors.

As we strive to serve all our neighbors in the love of Christ, upholding the dignity of every human being, may our lives be blessed by people with IDD as we together affirm boldly and faithfully: “I will, with God’s help!”

Sarah Barton is a Doctor of Theology candidate in Theology and Ethics at Duke Her research focuses on the intersections of disability and theological anthropology. She specifically investigates how theologies and practices of baptism across the ecumenical spectrum can foster communities of belonging for people living with significant intellectual and developmental disabilities. Sarah currently resides in Michigan where she is a faculty fellow at Western Theological Seminary.


This article is part of the November 2018 Vestry Papers issue on Hospitality and Outreach