Is The Church Failing Kids With Special Needs?
One third of parents and other caregivers of kids with special needs polled say their church does not have a Sunday school program for their children. While it is heartening that 60 percent of the 1000 practicing Christians recently surveyed by Barna Group did report that their church offered special needs programming, there is still a large chunk of special needs families getting left out of religious activity. In fact, statisticians say that an estimated 9.6 million caregivers of kids with special needs have no services to send them to. Meanwhile, 60 percent of caregivers said they rely on church to teach their children about matters of faith and religion.
This will not be news to those parents of kids with special needs who have struggled to find their place in the church or other places of worship. Our family attends a synagogue, and we had to finally leave the one we’d been at for years because there were no services for my son, Max, who has cerebral palsy. The only place for him there was the kiddie-care center; at 8 years old, my son was hanging out with toddlers. I’d approached the leaders of the congregation about possible programming for kids with special needs, one that took into account different cognitive levels and sensory needs. After being told there was no money for such a thing and that I’d basically have to spearhead the effort myself, I bailed. When I’ve written about this before, I’ve gotten flack that I didn’t step up to the plate. While I would have been more than willing to be part of a committee, as a working mom with significant childcare responsibilities, I couldn’t take on the leadership role. So help me God, I wanted to; I just wasn’t physically able to.
I’ve heard from many other parents of kids with other special needs—including autism and Down syndrome—that their children also lack access to religious services. While statistics show that church, synagogue and mosque attendance has remained steady in this country—at one point even inching up, per a Gallup poll—this is hardly a matter of filling up pews. Children with special needs have a right to religion as much as any other person. And truly: Is there anything more holy than helping those in need access religion? Aren’t places of worship the one place on the planet where inclusion should be a given?
As can often be the case with special needs initiatives, it may take parents to get the ball rolling. (That is, assuming their place of worship is open to that.) In our case, we ended up finding a smaller temple that was inclusive, one where the leaders were willing to work with me on finding ways to make my son more comfortable. So far, so good.
There are helpful resources out there, including the Christian HeartShaper Sunday School curriculum with customizable lessons for kids with special needs; Matan, which trains Jewish leaders on inclusion and creates special needs programming in synagogues and community centers; the Interfaith Initiative of the American Association of People with Disabilities, which supports people with disabilities and their families as they seek spiritual and religious access; and the Congregational Accessibility Network, which has a similar mission. There’s wonderful creative thinking happening, too, like the 13-year-old boy with autism in Massachusetts who conducted his bar mitzvah on his iPad.
There’s also hope. As the Reverend Bill Gaventa, editor of the Journal of Religion, Disability and Health, told me, “There are still far too many congregations unsure of what to do or not willing but also, gratefully, a growing explosion of places and resources that are getting really serious about inclusive ministries and faith supports.”
What’s been your experience with your place of worship and your child with special needs?
From my other blog:
Image of white steeple via Shutterstock
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Tags: Church and kids with special needs, health, Religion and kids with special needs | Categories: Autism, Cerebral Palsy, Children With Special Needs, Disability, Down Syndrome, Must Read, SPD, Special Needs, Special Needs Parenting, To The Max