In his 2018 Marjorie Pay Hinckley lecture “Fostering Belonging: Inclusion, Friendship, and People with Disabilities,” Cornelius Vanderbilt Professor of Special Education Erik Carter invited us to see these individuals for their strengths instead of focusing on their weaknesses and differences. In doing this, they will truly find worth and belonging in our congregations and communities.
In his research and studies, Dr. Carter found that there is a pattern of 10 attitudes, actions, and experiences that lead to belonging.
1. To be present
In a study conducted by Dr. Carter, 87% of people with disabilities said that faith was “somewhat” or “very important” in their lives, yet only 43% of individuals with significant disabilities attend worship services at least once a month. This is not a critique of these individuals, but a critique of our church buildings and services. We must have facilities and services that serve the needs of all members of the congregation and allow them to be present. Where and how we gather say a lot about our community and how we treat the people of our community.
2. To be invited
It is one thing for an individual to be present, but quite another for them to be intentionally invited to be part of a community. And that’s the key–intention. In Dr. Carter’s study, a church leader reported that “it’s not that we deliberately exclude [individuals with disabilities]. In fact, we’re not deliberate at all. That’s the problem.”
An announcement is a good first step and it may be intentional, but it is not personal. A true invitation is personal, lets the individual know that they are personally being thought of and that their presence really matters.
3. To be welcomed
“[Being welcomed] is not just about what you say, but rather it is more about what is felt. The host is not the one who determines what feels welcoming. It is the guest,” shared Dr. Carter.
For the host (those who are doing the welcoming), the biggest threat to being welcoming is uncertainty. Ask about the needs of the individual and then ask about who they are. Parents of youth with disabilities say that they see a large degree of joy in their children. When you welcome that joy into your congregation, think about the joy they will give back. The charge to welcome individuals with disabilities is not only for close family, friends or a welcome committee, it is a charge for everyone.
4. To be known
When you welcome someone into your community, they should not stay a stranger for long. Getting to know people is detrimental, but it is how they are known that is even more important. Don’t know people by simply their name, their labels, or their strength in overcoming their disabilities; see them for who they are and their strengths. Their friendship and joy are something to be shared and appreciated.
5. To be accepted
We need to be personally involved with contacting all members of our community. This is not solely the responsibility of religious leaders, but it is again a responsibility for every member of the congregation. By embracing the person for all they are–both their attitudes of you and your attitudes of them–will be changed.
6. To be supported
Having a disability can be challenging, but even more challenging is doing it without the support of those around you. To be supportive you must show interest, ask for input, and ask good questions. Be an advocate for disability awareness efforts and an advocate for the family so that church can become the happiest and most supportive time of these individuals’ and their families’ week.
7. To be cared for
Church only lasts for a few hours but fellowship needs to continue throughout the week. Truly caring for others means that we “recognize and strive to support the spiritual, emotional, and practical needs” of members even after we leave the chapel on Sunday. This care shows that the individual matters and that they belong. Couldn’t we all be a little more caring and concerned?
8. To be befriended
Friendships are a commodity that we often take for granted. In a national study of adolescents with autism, 24% of adults with intellectual disabilities reported having no friendships or caring relationships other than those with their support staff or family members. “The relationship networks of students [and individuals] with disabilities tend to be quite different from those of students without similar labels.”
We must be intentional with our relationships and take the responsibility of being the friend that our peers and community members need.
9. To be needed
Individuals with disabilities are “indispensable members” of a congregation who bring indispensable gifts and talents that can bless everyone in a congregation. Finding ways to be ministered to by people with disabilities will truly bless individuals in our faith communities who interact and learn from individuals with disabilities.
Giving all individuals the opportunities to serve will serve us well.
God sees everyone with value, worth, and love, so why should we strive to see people any differently? Loving people with disabilities and making sure that they feel belonging is not something that should be left to the experts, it is something that we should do ourselves.
Dr. Carter emphasized, “The core needs are not what’s different, but the supports that we have to provide to support people are different…It is through simple actions that all in a congregation will feel welcomed and a sense of ‘belonging.’”