Over the past two years, I’ve had the honor of working with parents and practitioners who minister to children and adults with disabilities.  Time and time again, main themes emerge as potential roadblocks to working with those who require something a little different than your average presentation of the faith. Three themes follow, along with some wisdom I’ve gained along the way

Creating a Welcoming Environment
One common roadblock is a congregation or a class that doesn’t fully welcome an individual with special needs. Sadly, individuals or families may sometimes be turned away from attending services or classes or receiving sacraments. Here are a few tips that might help change minds and hearts so all of God’s children are welcomed in community:

  • Invite experts in the field of disability to speak to your audience about the importance of welcoming those with special needs. Invite speakers to emphasize that an individual with special needs does indeed have a spiritual life and should be invited to participate.
  • Help others use “people first” language in which words place the person before the disability, such as she has autism versus she is autistic. A simple Internet search can provide many positive examples.
  • Adapt spaces and seating arrangements so everyone can feel included.
  • Provide adaptive faith-related materials, such as The Adaptive First Eucharist Preparation Kit or The Adaptive Reconciliation Kit by Loyola Press.

Teaching to Strengths
Teaching individuals with disabilities requires us to look at each person uniquely, to identify his or her strengths, and to differentiate our approach. Try these ideas to help teach to a person’s strengths:

  • Talk with family members. Find out what works and what doesn’t in school and social settings. What motivates this person? What calms him or her? What causes anxiety or discomfort? What assistive materials might help this person?
  • Watch for feedback, facial, physical, or verbal. Being a careful observer can help you assess a person’s level of comfort or understanding.
  • Modify and adapt your approach. For example, if a person has a physical disability, consider presenting ideas visually or verbally. If a person has difficulty maintaining attention, make the learning hands-on and active.

Recognizing Signs of a Disability
Take some time to learn about the disabilities of those you serve. Pay attention to characteristics that might be misinterpreted as irreverence or inappropriate behavior. Chances are, these behaviors are signs of a disability. These characteristics are often signs of a disability that should be received with tolerance and compassion:

  • involuntary movements such as tics, tremors, or vocalizations
  • lack of eye contact
  • inability to give a verbal response or a confusion in providing a gestural response (such as shaking head no when the individual means yes)
  • difficulty swallowing
  • holding ears, pacing, or other gesture that signals sensory issues

So let’s remove the roadblocks and work together to help those with special needs experience the richness of a relationship with Jesus and with those who share their faith. We all have different abilities. We are all needed. We are all valued.

Joellyn Cicciarelli is a national workshop presenter and the director of curricula development at Loyola Press, who oversaw and helped develop the Adaptive First Eucharist Preparation Kit and the Adaptive Reconciliation Kit.

The teenage life is a huge time of transitions, from safety and security in their family to finding out who they are in school and life outside of the family. From a teen’s eyes, it might seem like an endless series of crisis events. And to make it worse, no two crisis could be the same. They can face anything from bullies to divorcing parents, failing grades to friends who cut.

As youth workers to see hundreds, maybe thousands of students a week, how do we interact, work with, and serve those students who are going through a crisis? There are three things that every situation will need you to do, regardless of the situation: you need to be ready for crisis to happen, we need to give them time and space initially instead of fixing immediately, and we need to see it to the end.

We will further address each of these this week, but here is a brief description of each:

Be Prepared for Crisis [read more]
Preparation of a crisis that could (and will) happen involves three things: leaving time in your schedule to give it your full attention, knowing the resources available to you to best handle the situation, and creating an environment that is safe to be open and talk with adults and others about their problems. These allow us to effectively and fully engage with the student, preventing deeper wounds being created from our own shortcomings.

Giving Them Time And Space, Instead of Fixing Anything [read more]
Our first reaction to working with students is the desire to fix what they are facing because of any three things: we need to quickly fix their crisis so we can face our own, we are uncomfortable with the pain, or we assume that we know what the whole story is that has led to this crisis. But if we give them the time and space, this will allow them to work through their emotions (no matter how hard that is) as well as establish a deeper relationship between you and the student.

Creating A Comfortable Environment For Students [read more]
So many crisis are never told to an adult because of the fear that they will be judged, ignored, or rejected because of the problem. Yet, we can create a safe environment for them to share their hearts with us instead of hiding it away by developing deep and authentic relationships that start with sharing your own hurts and wounds from your past, regularly telling students that adults in the church are hear to talk, and consistently preach and teach on the tough topics like suicide and bullying.

Jeremy Smith is a 26-year old youth pastor at the Air Force Academy chapel, working for Club Beyond, and attending Denver Seminary for his Master”s of Arts in Counseling Ministries. He has been involved in Youth for Christ for eight years — check out his blog at Seventy8Productions.