Walking the Welcome Walk
A few years ago, a parent came to me with a concern. Her parish priest had asked her and her husband to take turns coming to services so the other parent could stay home with their son, Richard. Richard has learning disabilities and ADHD. The priest believed he was disruptive to their services. The priest’s request came not long after Richard’s grandmother had requested that Richard not come to Thanksgiving dinner because she found him to be disruptive as well.
This family is not alone in discovering that their son is not welcome because of his disabilities. Throughout our country parents of children with disabilities have been asked to attend services without their children or if they must bring the children the parents are asked to sit with the children in a separate space, often called a “family room”.
The result of these policies is that across the United States, children with developmental or intellectual disabilities are much more likely to never attend religious services than are children with no disabilities.
In a recent study, the odds of children on the autism spectrum never attending religious services are almost double what they are for plain children. There are similar odds for children with depression, a developmental delay or a learning disability. This situation is not true for children with chronic health conditions that are more physical in nature such as diabetes, vision or hearing problems.
There are multiple issues here. First of all, houses of worship often signal that the welcome mat is not out for those with challenges. The places of worship lack ramps for those who use wheelchairs. No adaptations are made to the rituals or liturgy to meet individual needs. Sometimes lights, sounds or visuals that are part of the service are disruptive to children with some disabilities.
Members of the congregation could be taught an attitude of acceptance. Instead parents of children with disabilities report being told by other congregants that their children are disruptive or “probably aren’t getting anything out of the service anyway so why should they ruin it for others.” Clergy people could use these attitudes to teach acceptance of all at God’s house.
In addition to the isolation of the children, parents of children with disabilities often feel socially isolated because of child care needs and the difficulty of finding suitable babysitters. Often attending a religious service is an important outlet for families to be able to be with others in their faith community.
A theological and ethical commitment needs to be made by faith communities to these children and their families. These children need to be welcomed and valued. Communities need to go beyond talking about compassion and start taking tangible steps to show they have a heart that welcomes these children with special needs. It is not enough to talk the talk. It is time to walk the walk of welcome.