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.
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.
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.
“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.”
“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:
- Speaking Words that Welcome: Language, Messages and Communication (with visual cues)
- Creating Sacred Space for All: Physical Access, Accommodations and Supports
- Being the Body of Christ for One Another: Social Access
- Guiding with Intentionality; Polices, Forms and Planning
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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Categories: Christian Formation, Matthew 25, Partner Associations
Tags: autism spectrum, being the body of christ for one another, building congregational vitality, central presbyterian church summit new jersey, creating sacred space for all, disability inclusion toolkit, matthew 25 invitation, neurodiverse, neurotypical, office of christian formation, quicksheets, rev. deborah huggins, speaking words that welcome, stop motion animation
Ministries: Office of Christian Formation, QuickSheets and Resources, Partner Associations, Matthew 25 in the PC(USA): Join the Movement