By Shannon Baker, BCM/D National Correspondent
LYNCHBURG, Va.—Beth Ackerman was horrified when she discovered that a family who had a child with special needs couldn’t attend church.
The associate dean at the School of Education at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., decided to research area churches to see if any were equipped to care for such families.
To her dismay, she found none.
“At the time, there wasn’t a single church in our town who could take in children with special needs without their parents sitting with them in church,” she shared, noting that churches were happy to have the family visit, but only if the parents were responsible for the care of their child.
Instead, the family opted to watch church on TV at home, she said, rather than face the daunting task of going to church without any help.
Families face challenges when their children have intellectual disabilities, such as autism, Down syndrome, a brain injury, or other developmental complications; or physical impairment, which ranges from orthopedic, neuromuscular, cardiovascular and pulmonary disorders.
Children with intellectual disabilities are challenged in mental capabilities, such as learning, reasoning, problem solving, as well as social and practical skill development.
People with physical disabilities often must rely upon assistive devices such as wheelchairs to obtain mobility or feeding tubes to aid in eating, among other things.
“There is a 90 percent chance that parents of children with disabilities will divorce. Now add on that most of these families are unchurched, and you see how hard it is for them,” Ackerman lamented. “We’ve got to do a better job at reaching these families, too.”
To that end, Ackerman shared four steps that churches can take to minister to families who have children with intellectual disabilities or physical impairments.
1. Make them feel welcome.
So many churches aren’t even handicap accessible, Ackerman noted, urging church leaders to walk around their facilities to ensure that persons with disabilities can move around without great effort or distraction.
Do you have automatic doors or, at the least, greeters ready to open doors? Are your doors wide enough for wheelchairs to enter?
Beyond the building, Ackerman urges that church members “open their arms” to these families, warmly inviting them to participate and share in the church’s events. Like any other guests, these families long for a place to belong.
2. Operate within the principle of normalization.
No one likes to be singled out for being different. Likewise, it is normal for families with children with disabilities to want their children to grow up with their peers and to experience as normal a childhood as possible.
Ackerman once witnessed an adolescent, who was placed into a much younger class that matched his intellectual capacity. Her heart sunk as she could tell he longed to be with his peers.
For that reason, she believes children with disabilities typically should attend the classroom they normally would attend if they had no disabilities.
“These families long for a normal life. We really minister to the whole family when churches offer ways to include children with special needs in their day-to-day routines,” she said.
To help make that happen, she suggests that churches assign a “peer buddy” or tutor, who can share on the child’s level what is being taught. With the appropriate support system in place, parents can attend services knowing that the needs of their child are being met.
3. Instruct in God’s way.
Ackerman insists that ministry to children with disabilities “is not glorified baby-sitting.”
“All children need to learn who God is and that He loves them!” she said, acknowledging that with individualized instruction, “it is possible to teach children the Word of God within their age appropriate classroom.”
The “peer buddy” system is a good solution that ministers both to the child and the one ministering.
“We do this with a heart of ministry, but what we very quickly realize is that these children are ministering to us,” she said, adding that students with disabilities show others God’s love through their struggles as they join other students in classes, athletic events, and spiritual life.
“When you pair a self-centered teenager with a child who can’t hold onto his paper, something supernaturally happens in that teenager’s heart,” she said. “There’s something really spiritually grounding about seeing basic needs being met.”
4. Provide respite.
“We take for granted being able to easily go to the grocery store or to get a good night’s sleep,” shared Ackerman. “But so often, mothers with autistic children find themselves waking up on the kitchen floor after spending most of the night calming down their children after their fits.”
What these families often need most is a break.
Churches who train individuals to care for children with special needs can offer times for parents to get refreshed or even just go to the grocery store in peace.
“You’d be surprised at the resources available in your churches,” she said, pointing to nurses, healthcare providers, and trained teachers who would likely volunteer their time. “God will provide for the need if you look for it.”
Ackerman believes in the power of prayer when working with students with special needs. As a start, she offers the following prayers: How can I better understand the needs of these students? Why did God place these particular students in my care? What am I to teach these students? How will God teach me through these students?
Ackerman believes that ministering to children with special needs and their families should be a greater priority in churches. She loves that the Catholic Pope, even before meeting dignitaries, goes first to the disabled to bless them in Jesus’ name. “I would love for us to do this, too,” she said.
For continued educational tips, visit Ackerman’s faculty blog, “Ackerman’s Angle,” at http://www.luonline.com/index.cfm?PID=20067.