Listening to the real experts on disability inclusion

New Disability Inclusion Toolkit helps churches to welcome all

by Paul Seebeck | Presbyterian News Service

LOUISVILLE — A new Disability Inclusion Toolkit  from the Office of Christian Formation will help Presbyterians continue along the path of congregational inclusivity.

As the writer of Faith and Disability, A Practical Guide for Church Leaders, the Rev. Deborah Huggins, associate pastor at Central Presbyterian Church in Summit, New Jersey, is an advocate and researcher for the inclusion of  people with disabilities in faith communities.

Working in the church, Huggins knows how difficult it can be to implement a capital campaign to install elevators or even ramps. But what research shows, she says, is that attitudes in a congregation can be an even bigger barrier than any physical challenge to accessibility.

“You don’t have to be an expert to be inclusive. You do have to listen to the real experts — those with disabilities,” she said.

The Rev. Deborah Huggins is pictured with some of the children she serves as associate pastor of youth and children at Central Presbyterian Church in Summit, New Jersey. (Contributed photo)

As Huggins watches congregations work at disability inclusion — by developing inclusive attitudes, valuing all leadership, and asking who is missing from one’s community — the resources they believe may be unreachable often come to them.

A congregation Huggins knows was working on disability inclusion. As talk centered on how the church couldn’t afford to install a ramp, one of the men in the community, who happens to be a contractor, said he would build the ramp.

“The Holy Spirit provides for us when we think there won’t be a way — in abundance, even,” she said.

For Huggins, disability inclusion work is both personal and professional. She is the mother of a child with mild-to-moderate disability. Before working in the church, Huggins was a behavioral therapist for children along the autism spectrum. With a master’s degree in special education, she has also worked as a special education teacher in kindergarten-through-eighth-grade inclusive classrooms.

For Huggins, mentorship and relationships are key to disability inclusion work. Recently she took a ninth grader on a youth retreat. The other children knew of his disability and were supportive and kind. During the retreat, this person learned that to be friends with others, he needed to show interest in the things others were interested in.

“It sounds simple for someone who is neurotypical, but for someone neurodiverse, it’s really profound,” Huggins said.

Another student at Central Presbyterian Church who’s also on the autism spectrum loves animation. So, Huggins had the student do her Vacation Bible School stories this year, using stop motion animation.

Being people of the Word — this is a fellowship room at Central Presbyterian Church — the Rev. Deborah Huggins says the congregation is serious about the words of welcome they use for persons with disabilities, making sure they honor how each person wants to be identified. (Photo by Rob Thiemann)

“If we take a minute to consider the God-given strengths of people in our ministry, we can do amazing things, including helping everyone express their gifts,” Huggins said. “If you connect kids with a disability or without a disability to their passions, they can contribute substantially to the life of the church.”

Honored to be working with people with disabilities, Huggins has been thinking about PC(USA)’s Matthew 25 invitation and how God has called churches to recognize the fullness of diversity, and what it might mean for each of us.

Then Huggins spoke about a wonderful older man at Central Presbyterian Church who has an intellectual disability. At the contemporary service, this man likes to get up and dance at the end of the service. Because he enjoys dancing so much, other worshipers get up and dance with him.

A few months ago, he was standing up dancing in the traditional, high-steeple church service, “where we are the frozen chosen for sure,” Huggins said.

In a rather loud voice, one of the longtime pillars of the church asked, “Why is he standing up?”

Another person answered, “Because we stand up in the other church [service] and it’s hard for him to tell the difference between the two.  And if you look up there, our pastor is welcoming him, and we can too.”

The Rev. Deborah Huggins (Contributed photo)

“To have two women in their late 80s, having a conversation about disability inclusion was amazing,” Huggins said. “That’s what it’s all about. It’s really powerful what we get to do in people’s lives by just following the Spirit and doing what churches do.”

 In the Disability Inclusion Toolkit are the following Quicksheets:

 The toolkit also has Faith Communities and Inclusion of Persons of All Abilities Resource Roadmap, along with other resources from Presbyterians for Disabilities Concerns.

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