I have been in a special-needs family since the day I was born (I have an older sister with Down syndrome). So asking "Is this church special-needs friendly?" is a question I've heard discussed for decades. Even when I was in college, I found a church that welcomed people with disabilities because that's what I was used to.
Based on the 2000 census, two out of every seven families in the US have a family member with a disability (ranging from autism to Alzheimer’s). It's easier to find a church that welcomes families like mine than it was decades ago, but we still have a long way to go until every church feels like home.
If you're searching for a church home, here are four steps to take:
Pray: Tell God the desires of your heart in finding a church. He wants you to be supported by and involved in a faith community! He will guide you in the search.
Research: Check out the websites of the churches in your area you're interested in. Many will have information on their sites if they are special-needs welcoming. But even if they don't, that doesn't mean they can't meet your family's needs. Some churches don't have a specific special-needs ministry, but have people with disabilities as part of the congregation.
Plan Your Visit: Call or email the church ahead of time to find out who is in charge of children’s ministry. I use language like, “We will be visiting your church Sunday and have a child with special needs. Who can we contact to make sure our visit is as comfortable as possible for him?” Contact that person directly to let him/her know your family is coming and what your needs are. It allows that person to contact the teachers or volunteers who will be with your child so they can prepare. For example, if your child has an wheat allergy, they can get the pretzel snacks out of the room before you arrive. Also, if your child is older, he may not want to hear his special needs explained in front of him to multiple people. Doing this ahead of time will save him embarrassment. Get to church early enough to know where to go and meet with the person you contacted, if necessary. Bring anything your child will need, including special snacks or sensory toys. And be honest. Don’t let embarrassment or nervousness keep you from telling those who will be caring for your children what they need to know.
Discuss the visit as a family: Ask yourself and your family members lots of questions. What did you like? What did you not like? What accommodations could me made if you visited again? (Like noise reducing headphones during the music.) Pay attention to how everyone felt and what they learned during the visit. Be honest with each other. You may not love everything about the church on the first visit, but you could you see yourself there, serving with them and being served by them?
Finding a new church as a special-needs family isn't always easy, but with patience from your family and the desire to find a place that really feels like home, the search will be worth it!
Sandra Peoples serves as co-director of her church's special-needs ministry. You can connect with her on her site, sandrapeoples.com and check out her book, Unexpected Blessings: The Joys and Possibilities of Life in a Special-Needs Family.