My children were 4 & 6 when they lost me. It was the summer of 2013, my 40th birthday when I sustained a traumatic brain injury. Every day for years, I experienced excruciating pain, dizzying migraines, memory loss, slurred speech, and a host of other debilitating symptoms. Sound, light, and motion made me sick. Even the sound of my children made me sick. For many years I was a quiet observer, unable to tolerate or participate in life.
At the time, we attended a mega-church. But it made me sick to ride the 40 minutes it took to get there. Walking through the doors with hundreds of other people, surrounded by noise and light, would put me in bed for days. We found a much smaller church, closer to home. Still, the music was devastating to my head. So I attended with my family but would slip in just to listen to the sermon. That community tried its best to support our family, but it was too much for them to understand or sustain. The pastor came to our house to anoint me and pray for healing.
The healing didn’t come.
The loneliness was crushing.
My entire life, I was deeply involved and connected to a church body. I served many years as a Youth Director in very large churches. And now I stood alone. Many, many years later, my brain began to heal. Medications and therapy helped me be able to participate in the life of my family and, eventually, the life of the church.
We found a church that immediately became like family, and I promised myself I would attend whether I was having a good day or a bad day. I began to volunteer and was eventually hired as one of the Co-Youth Directors in the church.
I am still limited in many ways. But I have an incredibly unique perspective as one who has experienced many levels of disability and neuro-divergence in the church. I know what it feels like to be unable to participate because of physical and mental barriers within the church.
The Call to Accessibility
So how do we serve well in the midst of disability and/or neurodivergence? How do we develop inclusivity in the ministries we lead? It’s no longer enough to build a few ramps and call ourselves accessible. It’s not enough to welcome one neurodivergent person and call ourselves inclusive.
Radical inclusion means seeking out and destroying the physical and mental barriers that keep people from the gospel. Radical inclusion is a culture, it takes continued work, and it’s not easy. Radical inclusion treats people with disabilities as more than objects, but as those created in the image of God and those called by God to serve.
Our biggest challenge in serving with cognitive or physical disabilities is to believe our disabilities are part of God’s perfect creation. It’s nearly impossible to see our value in the life of the church, especially if we are home-bound. Radical inclusion means reminding disabled people that they are created in the image of God. Their disability isn’t a mistake, and it isn’t something we should try to pray away. Radical inclusivity says – you are made in the image of God, and God will use you to write God’s story.
The next challenge is to name our limitations and to have healthy boundaries that protect our resources. We have to know what we can do and what we cannot or should not be doing. It is the church’s responsibility to show grace if we have to miss or delay a commitment due to illness. An inclusive culture seeks and celebrates ways we can serve and places equal value in praying from a sickbed or preaching Sunday morning. Every job is significant and beautiful.
Everyone that walks through the door of a church is looking for a place to be accepted and affirmed. We desperately need connection. One of the biggest barriers to that connection with disabled folks is fear. We are afraid to ask questions for fear of saying the wrong thing. But the starting point has to be knowing the person, their limitations, and their family dynamics. We have to address challenges, suffering, and pain so we can celebrate victories, healing, and hope.
Each disabled or neurodivergent congregant is so incredibly unique. The greatest resource for how to minister well to and with that person is the person themself. If it is a child, their parents are your greatest resource. Ask them – what makes church hard? What fears might keep you from attending? Don’t be afraid to ask their family members – how can we serve you well? What do you need?
Accessibility in Your Context
I would encourage you to take an accessibility walk through your church building. View a Sunday service with a radically inclusive eye. Imagine having a cognitive disorder, and take notes as you walk.
- What do you feel?
- What do you see?
- What do you hear?
- Is lighting extreme or pointing in the faces of the congregation?
- Is the sound modulated, or are there extreme highs and lows?
- Is the temperature in the church well regulated?
- Is crowding in classrooms or hallways extreme?
- Ask the question – if I am overwhelmed by anything on this list, how can we as a church address those barriers?
Radically inclusive church culture means knowing individuals, naming their barriers, seeking ways they can add to the life and ministry of the church, and celebrating their worth. What we believe about disabled and neurodivergent people speaks to what we believe about God. We are all created in God’s image, and people with disabilities and differences can be gifts to our churches if we celebrate and welcome them in.
Here are some other resources from my denominational context (UMC): https://umcdmc.org/resources/christian-education/theology/.
And this information about a formal accessibility audit:https://umcdmc.org/resources/accessibility-and-united-methodist-churches/accessibility-audit/