Faith Inclusion (Optional)

Watch the following:

For many people, one very important aspect of community and personal life is their involvement with their faith. Having faith is a staple in the lives of many people, with and without disabilities. What religion or denomination that faith is rooted in, is not important for our purposes here. People use their own faith, whether it includes support from a formal religious group or a more informal spirituality, to help them through life’s more difficult times and to celebrate life’s glories. Many people with disabilities also rely on and rejoice in their spirituality. This is a facet of life that they often long to be included in, but unfortunately, it is an area where their participation is sometimes made difficult or impossible. Members of all faith based communities should take it upon themselves to reflect upon the barriers to the inclusion of those with disabilities, and how they might be overcome, not only so that people with disabilities feel their religious experience is a source of comfort and not frustration, but so that the community can benefit from all that these individuals have to share.

One of the most common barriers people with disabilities face when it comes to their places of worship is that they are often not physically accessible for them. The separation of church and state in our country makes it so that churches are exempt from the laws and for building accessibility (that result from the Americans with Disabilities Act). Unfortunately, this means that it is perfectly legal to have a church, synagogue, or mosque that is not accessible to those with physical disabilities. This means that many people with disabilities are not able to access the faith community of their choice. Can you imagine choosing your church on the basis of whether or not you could reach its sanctuary? Even worse, imagine if you were a member of a smaller religious group, and the only local place of worship was not accessible. Additionally, young people with disabilities face challenges because youth groups tend to meet in the church or synagogue. For many students your age, youth group is a large part of community life that is sometimes inaccessible to those with disabilities.

While considering architectural barriers is an important first step in increasing inclusion in a person’s faith community, they only affect persons with certain physical disabilities. Consider the barriers that people who have an intellectual or developmental disability such as Down syndrome or autism might face. Just like in other areas of society, people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and their families face attitudinal barriers that impact their ability to be included in many religious communities. Due to a lack of knowledge and understanding about disability issues, some congregations may not feel comfortable having people with disabilities involved in their religious services and traditions. They may fear that such a person will be a disruption, or cause a scene. Sadly, one person’s fear can result in another person’s exclusion.

As a peer buddy, you are in a unique position to understand how becoming educated and getting to know individuals with disabilities can change people’s beliefs and attitudes. Before becoming a peer buddy, you may or may not have had certain fears related to disability, or you may have believed certain stereotypes. After becoming a peer buddy, however, your perspective may have changed in these areas. This puts you in a prime position to advocate for your friends with disabilities.

There are two ways in which you may be able to help to advocate for inclusion in this area.

  • The first is to advocate for your buddy. If faith is an area of his or her life that he or she expresses interest in becoming more involved with, or if you know that he or she has faced barriers like the ones above, you can help your buddy talk to his or her family about approaching leaders in their religious community to discuss ways of making services and the community itself more accessible. You do not have to be a member of your buddy’s place of worship, or the group he or she would like to join, in order to help your  buddy stand up for his or her right to participate fully. 
  • If you belong to a faith based community, a second way that you can advocate for inclusion in spirituality is by examining the accessibility of your own place of worship. Consider both physical and attitudinal accessibility, and what might happen if you brought your buddy with you one day. 

The following questions may help guide your thoughts:

  1. Are persons with disabilities welcome to worship with us?
  2. Are there people with visible or invisible disabilities who are currently members?
  3. Are we encouraging more persons with disabilities in our community to consider joining our church?
  4. Do we recognize the gifts of people with disabilities and are they involved in the full life of the church?
  5. Are people with disabilities given opportunities to serve others within the congregation and in outreach programs?
  6. Are positions of leadership offered to individuals who happen to have a disability?
  7. Understanding the attitudes of the people with whom you worship is the first step to providing support and adaptations to people with disabilities. 

In thinking about a local faith congregation (or youth group) that you or a friend or family member attends, write a short discussion of these questions. Think about ways in which you could help people with disabilities become more involved in the faith organization on which you focused. Would this involve removing architectural barriers? Would it mean eradicating attitudinal barriers that are imposed by members of the congregation? What needs to be done and what are some ways in which you could achieve this goal?