Including People with Intellectual Disabilities

What is an intellectual disability?

According to the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, “Intellectual disability is a disability characterized by significant limitations in both intellectual functioning and in adaptive behavior,” which affects many everyday social and practical skills. 

How to include people who have intellectual disabilities in your church

When you are interacting with people with intellectual disabilities, the following tips may be helpful for ensuring that everyone is included.

Communication

  • Extend common courtesies such as shaking hands, bumping elbows or fists, or other social gestures.
  • If you are having difficulty understanding what a person is saying, ask the person to repeat rather than pretending to understand. If necessary, seek assistance from a family member or caregiver in communicating.
  • Think of people by chronological age rather than mental age or cognitive ability. Treat adults as adults.
  • Do not refer to people with intellectual disabilities with cute names such as “special people” nor call adults “kids.”
  • Liturgies that depend less on reading (and especially on reading lots of words in quick succession) may be helpful. Also helpful are repetitive phrases that can become the language of a congregation, such as “Lord, have mercy” and “Thanks be to God.”

Participation in church life

  • It may be helpful to have a friend, family member, or other person within the congregation welcome and sit with a person during worship and assist, if needed.
  • If the person is accompanied by a caregiver (family or paid caregiver), make sure to welcome and include the caregiver as well. Caregivers can often feel “unseen.” If the person is a paid support staff, however, make sure that the primary focus is on the person with the disability and don’t always communicate with the supporting staff, even if it might be easier at times.
  • People with intellectual disabilities should have an opportunity to participate in every program offered by the church. Typically, the challenges to inclusion are with the church environment, not with the people themselves.
  • Assume that people with intellectual disabilities have gifts to offer, and encourage them to use their gifts. Do not assume what a person can or cannot do.
  • Challenge your church to open leadership opportunities in the church to people with any disability, insofar as the work of the office fits the gifts of the person.

Service and leadership opportunities

Don’t underestimate people’s pastoral gifts, even if they might look different from those of other people. Ways for people with intellectual disabilities to serve and lead can include:

  • Testimonies
  • Hospitality
  • Prayer partners
  • Singing in the choir
  • Reader for Scripture or litany (rehearsal may be needed)
  • Dramas
  • Dance
  • Serving in diaconal or elder offices as appropriate, etc. 

Suggested resources:

  • Friendship Ministries: Friendship Ministries provides opportunities for people with and without intellectual disabilities to study the Bible together and to prepare people with intellectual disabilities for fuller participation in worship, the sacraments, and full church membership.
  • Together, an inclusive small group Bible study by Friendship Ministries 
  • Helping Kids Include Kids with Disabilities, by Barbara J. Newman
  • Including People with Disabilities in Faith Communities, by Erik W. Carter
Everybody Belongs, Serving Together is a collaboration of RCA and CRCNA Disability Concerns, Christian Horizons, and Elim Christian Services.

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