Ministering to children with differences helps us be more creative in our ministry to all children and reaffirm our beliefs. Lessons of compassion, caring, and acceptance benefit us all, young and old alike. Moreover, fighting for the rights of children with disabilities is an issue of social justice that Unitarian Universalist congregations can embrace. It is important that we not only welcome people with disabilities into our churches but that we also join them in their fight for equal access, education, pay, and opportunities. We deepen our faith when we embrace and fight for the vision of an inclusive community.
—Sally Patton, author of Welcoming Children with Special Needs
Creating an Inclusive Community
Volunteer teachers, facilitators and religious educators frequently ask the Unitarian Universalist Association's (UUA’s) Faith Development Office for resources to help include all children, youth and adults in our congregations. Here are some suggestions:
- One of the best places to start is Unitarian Universalist Sally Patton’s book Welcoming Children with Special Needs (PDF, 302 pages) (now out of print) Patton has advocated and worked with children labeled as disabled for more than 35 years. More information and resources are available on her website, Embrace the Spirit of the Child; of particular interest to Unitarian Universalist (UU) congregations are the scripted training materials (PDF, 73 pages).
- Linette Lowe, a religious educator in the Mid-America region, presented this webinar on Creative Inclusion. She explains, "Most of our congregations do a reasonable job of being accessible to those with physical disabilities: we have accessible entrances, restrooms, classrooms and sanctuaries. Those who have mobility issues, restricted vision, and hearing loss are accommodated so that they can fully participate in the lives of our congregations. But are we as accommodating to those who are neurodiverse? Are those who live on the autism spectrum, those who have dyslexia or other learning differences, those with ADHD, Tourette Syndrome, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, developmental speech disorders, Parkinson's disease, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and others welcomed as well? What can we do to help our congregations become informed about and more comfortable with neurodiversity, the idea that humans have diverse forms of “brain wiring,” each of which brings a gift to our communal life? When we can claim the gifts of neurodiversity, we can more fully live into our philosophy of radical welcome. What will this mean for how we "do" church?" Linette welcomes you to email her if you have questions at dre [at] firstulou [dot] org.
- In the July 2015 Faith Development Office webinar "Cultural Competence with Disability: Conversations for Access and Possibility", Theresa I. Soto invites religious professionals and lay leaders to shift the lens through which we view disability in order to welcome and connect in new ways. The webinar specifically focuses on language concerning disability that can create authentic connection, communicate respect, and perhaps avoid instances of accidental offense. Theresa is a ministerial intern at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Salem (OR) and vice president of EqUUal Access, an organization that promotes equality and access for UUs with disabilities.
- Moving Toward an Inclusive Vision from the Liberal Religious Educators (LREDA) Integrity Team offers suggestions, practical guidance, and resources to congregational leaders and religious professionals.
- Tapestry of Faith curricula for children, youth, adults and multigenerational groups offer guidance for including all participants. Read Inclusion Resources in Tapestry of Faith Curricula (PDF).
- “Special Education Approach to OWL” (PDF, 15 pages) is a chapter from the 2nd edition of Our Whole Lives for Grades 7-9 that the UUA provides at no charge online. Find help to anticipate and address the learning needs of youth with autism spectrum disorder or an attention-related, intellectual, or learning disability so these youth may more fully participate and learn.
- The Accessibility and Inclusion Ministry (AIM) program, a joint project of EqUUal Access and the Unitarian Universalist Association, is a congregational program focused on welcoming, embracing, integrating, and supporting people with disabilities and their families in our congregations. Its sacred challenge to congregations is that they recognize the humanity and gifts of all people. This program extends the efforts described in the document “Accessibility Guidelines for Unitarian Universalist Congregations” (PDF) by creating a certification program whereby congregations can be formally recognized for their commitment and progress.
- The Faith Development Office blog Call and Response has several posts of interest:
- Teaching All of Our Children by Sally Patton
- Preventable Suffering: A UU with Autism Confronts Coffee Hour by Ramon Selove
- Both Relationships and Ramps by Susan Lawrence
- "Back to Normal" Makes an Argument for Shedding Labels by Gail Forsyth-Vail
- The goal of the Inclusive Church blog by Amy Fenton Lee is to “share nuggets of insight and best practices gleaned from individuals experienced in disability ministry as well as secular professionals in the special needs community.” Fenton is also the author of the book Leading a Special Needs Ministry which serves as a practical "how-to" handbook for the family ministry team working to welcome one or 100 children with special needs. Easily referenced guidance is offered for expressing care for parents who are learning that their child has a diagnosis all the way to developing programs, policies and education for volunteers working with children with disabilities. Example ministry documents are provided throughout this resource guide.
- The comprehensive website Disability is Natural provides a wealth of resources including the book Disability is Natural (3rd edition) as well as an e-newsletter and a series of short video interviews from the Minnesota Governor’s Council on Developmental Disabilities.
- Insights into Religion, an intiative of the Lilly Endowment Fund, offers a helpful article on 7 Ways Congregations Can Embrace Poople with Special Needs.
- R.J. Palacio’s book Wonder is a great choice for a multigenerational book discussion in your congregation or local community; many guides are available online:
- For inspiration:
How does your congregation practice inclusion and accessibility? Share your story emailing religiouseducation [at] uua [dot] org.