Meeting people where they’re at.
It’s the hallmark of good ministry and pastoral care. It’s the foundation for building up community. It’s relational and meaningful and personal.
When it comes to ministry with persons with disabilities, there’s a caveat, though.
When we meet people where they’re at, there are a myriad of attitudes, skills, and knowledge we bring or don’t bring with us. Often, when ministering with people with disabilities, we meet them where they’re at with a spirit of accommodation. We are open to making some adjustments to our programs, ministries, or whatever else we’re already doing so that persons with disabilities can participate. For instance, perhaps we usually have a worship band play amplified music, but we make an exception for when a particular individual is at our praise and prayer meeting or youth group, etc. and we have the music a little softer, acoustic, to accommodate the sound sensitivity of an autistic participant.
Accommodation is good and necessary, but it’s missing something so subtle, you might not have seen it in the example above. Accommodation says “I will make exceptions for you to be able to participate” while inclusion says “you are a member of this community who already belongs here and we do things that work for everyone, including you.”
Inclusion is an attitude that acknowledges the belonging and membership of everyone, especially individuals with disability. An inclusive attitude looks like intentional and proactive learning and skill building on the part of leadership to meet the needs of everyone in the parish or particular ministry without the idea or concept of the efforts being exceptional or extraordinary. For example, we’d never say we were doing something exceptional or extraordinary in meeting a grieving individual where they are at and so meeting a person with disability where they are at shouldn’t be exceptional or extraordinary either.
Now, I know you might be saying, “but what’s the difference? You’re splitting hairs, Lindsey.” Let me illustrate with a personal example from my first couple of years of youth ministry and an example from my first couple of years as a Director of Religious Education.
In probably my second year of youth ministry, I had a parent let me know that one of her two sons joining our ministry was diagnosed with Aspergers (formerly considered a subtype of Autism and now just labeled Autism Spectrum Disorder, or ASD, in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders aka DSM-V). I told her we’d love to have both of her sons and asked her to let me know if there’s anything I can do or anything special her autistic son needed. I was ready to be very accommodating and desired for her autistic son to feel a part of our group. My attitude treated our group and it’s ways of operating as normative and this tween as different or “outsider” who we would carve out space for within our group.
An inclusive attitude would have seen him as already a part of the group as I thought about what adjustments we might need to make. An inclusive attitude would have motivated me to set up a better time to speak more with this student’s mom so we could go into detail about what proactive measures I could take to help him feel comfortable at youth group and like he belonged. An inclusive attitude would have researched and spent time brainstorming and thinking about how we could adapt to make youth ministry more accessible for him, rather than wait until there was a challenge or problem and react. This student was amazing and I don’t think we did anything to make him feel excluded, but I believe that in part because we didn’t have an attitude of inclusion, he didn’t remain an active participant in our youth ministry for as long as his peers.
Fast forward to a few years later when, as a DRE, a parent came to me and said his daughter preparing for First Holy Communion had Celiac’s disease and so the regular host and wine were extremely harmful for her. I assured him that she would celebrate First Holy Communion and I would find a solution – my attitude reflected the idea that she was a First Communicant and already belonged around the table of the Lord rather than a person who we needed to make exception for in order to accommodate. I researched not only “gluten-free” hosts and mustum, but also other considerations such as cross-contamination and how to work around those serious issues. I spent considerable time brainstorming and dialoguing to create a plan that would allow this little girl to receive Communion in a form and manner that was safe for her, discreet, respected her dignity, and was logistically simple for the Presider as well. This applied not just to her First Holy Communion, but for every time she was at Mass. The family felt welcomed, acknowledged, and their belonging in the community was reinforced. (For information on the Catholic Church’s pastoral response to Celiac’s Disease, click here.
Accommodation says we will make an exception to what is normative so you can join us.Inclusion says you ARE part of us and we will adapt and change what is normative in our community to reflect your belonging in this community.
So, yes, inclusion vs. accommodation can be a subtle difference, but can make all the difference in the world and it starts with you and me.