Photo of President George Bush signing into law the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 on the South Lawn of the White House. L to R, sitting: Evan Kemp, Chairman, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Justin Dart, Chairman, President’s Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities. L to R, standing: Rev. Harold Wilke and Sandy Swift Parrino, Chairperson, National Council on Disability, 07/26/1990.

Faith communities provide access, inclusion for people with disabilities

By Andy Imparato and Mark Crenshaw

This summer, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) celebrated its 27th anniversary. At the signing of that historic bill, disabilities advocate and United Church of Christ minister the Rev. Harold H. Wilke prayed:

“‘Let my people go,’ you did decree, Oh God, demanding that all your children be freed from the bonds of slavery. Today we celebrate the breaking of the chains, which have held back millions of Americans with disabilities. Today we celebrate the granting to them of full citizenship and access to the promised land of work, service and community. Bless this gathering, this joyous celebration. Bless our president as he signs the Americans with Disabilities Act. And strengthen our resolve as we take up the task, knowing that our work has just begun. Bless the American people, and move them to discard those old beliefs and attitudes that limit and diminish those among us with disabilities. Our prayer is in your name, Oh God, whom we call by many names: God and father of our Lord Jesus Christ; Allah, the compassionate and merciful one; the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and of Rebekah and Sarah and Ruth; the ground of all being; the infinite source of love and light. Amen.”

As Wilke reminded us on that day, the signing of the ADA was just the beginning of our work toward full acceptance and inclusion of people with disabilities. Even today, many committed clergy and laypeople, both with and without disabilities, continue working to make our communities of faith accessible, not only in terms of physical space, but also in terms of allowing everyone a place to identify their gifts and to put those gifts to use in the service of God.

In this article, we explore the innovative ways that seminaries, congregations and University Centers for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities (UCEDDs) are partnering to increase the welcome and embrace of people with disabilities and their gifts, especially in communities of faith.

At the “Being the Beloved Community Conference” in May 2016, a young adult named Martha started the opening plenary of the conference by talking about what it meant for her to find “home” in her church. She talked about how important the church youth group was to the development of her faith. She spoke about how she found joy and connection as she sang in her church’s choir. She was delighted to be considered for a lay leadership position in her congregation. She was obviously over the moon about the idea that the adults who had helped her grow and develop in her faith could see her gifts of leadership and were inviting her to use them.

The story Martha shared was a story about finding connections with God and with her community. It was about possessing God-given gifts and being asked to use them. The story wouldn’t have been out of place at any conference about youth ministry or church growth and development. Martha’s story probably would sound familiar to most youth who have grown up in a nurturing congregation. But Martha’s story was worthy of a keynote address because it’s all too uncommon to hear of a young person with a developmental disability who is nurtured by a congregation to grow in leadership ability and then invited to use that ability.

Being the Beloved Community was hosted by Columbia Theological Seminary, Decatur, Ga., to help Christian educators and church leaders be more intentional about not only providing access and family support but also fully welcoming the gifts of children with disabilities.

Being the Beloved Community was the vision of the Rev. Sarah Erickson, director of Lifelong Learning at Columbia Theological Seminary. When Erickson conceived the conference, she reached out to potential partners, including seminary alumni and members of churches and communities that she knew to be committed to including people with disabilities. She also reached out to staff of the Center for Leadership in Disability (CLD) at Georgia State University, Atlanta.

While the CLD and other UCEDDs are familiar to secular professionals and self-advocates who work in disability rights and disability-support systems, they may be unfamiliar to seminary and church professionals. Erickson became familiar with CLD when she attended the Sixth Summer Institute on Theology and Disability hosted by Georgia State University and co-sponsored by CLD. The Summer Institute brings together practitioners at the intersection of faith and disability to help both constituencies gather resources to make their churches and communities more hospitable to people with and without disabilities.

At the summer institute, Erickson learned from scholars in religion and disability from all over the world, but she also learned about the UCEDDs and the ways that the work of these centers could support congregations in reaching out to and being more inclusive of people with disabilities and their families. She knew she wanted to help connect her own seminary community, pastors and churches in her region with the resources available through CLD (her local UCEDD). Working together on Being the Beloved Community was one concrete expression of this new partnership. Continuing to unfold are other connections that serve the church and church leaders, such as a spring 2018 continuing education course about engaging people with disabilities in church leadership.

When Erickson contacted CLD following the summer institute, she didn’t want to know only about how the UCEDD could support churches in the work of welcoming people with disabilities and their families. She also wanted to know how churches could bring resources to support families once they were engaged in the church’s ministries. She found the answers she needed in the expertise of one of her state’s UCEDDS.

UCEDD staff members were able to introduce her to the expertise of special education teachers who work with their churches to create inclusive worship that is engaging for children with and without disabilities. She learned about congregations that are creating employment opportunities for transition-age adults who are too often left out of the workforce. Staff members introduced her to Universal Design for Learning (UDL), the principles and practices of which allow Christian educators to make religious education and other formation activities more accessible to everyone.

Your church can benefit from a relationship with your state’s UCEDD. Sixty-seven UCEDDs exist in the United States, with at least one in every state and territory. Innovation hubs, these centers develop new models and tools to support the full inclusion of people with disabilities in all aspects of their communities. UCEDDs complete research, deploying the findings in communities throughout the United States via training and technical assistance.

Your nearest UCEDD can help your congregation learn more about how to welcome and include people with disabilities and their families. You can gain the tools and resources needed to remove the barriers that keep people with disabilities from being full participants in your congregation and your community. In addition, your UCEDD can help your community members learn how to advocate for the rights of people with disabilities and their families, continuing the work begun at the signing of the ADA in 1990.

Andy Imparato is executive director of Association of University Centers on Disability, Silver Spring, Md. Mark Crenshaw is director of interdisciplinary training at Center for Leadership in Disability, Georgia State University, Atlanta. Learn more online and connect with the UCEDD nearest you.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

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