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Places Of Worship Take Steps To Be More Inclusive

Places Of Worship Take Steps To Be More Inclusive

Yvette Pegues teaches music to second grade students at First Baptist Church Woodstock in Woodstock, Ga. (Jason Getz/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

ATLANTA — The Rev. Lamar Hardwick was the pastor of a church in LaGrange when he was diagnosed with autism at 36 years old.

Before his diagnosis in 2014, Hardwick heard complaints from his congregation and staffers that he was distant and not very communicative. He would later learn that his autism made it hard for him to understand nonverbal communication.

As a result, he launched a program to help educate his church about autism and how a few changes can make the worship experience fuller for people with disabilities.

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Today, more places of worship are taking steps to make their sanctuaries and services more accessible and inclusive for people with disabilities from adding ramps, to having the choir sing on the main floor or having a “sensory room” for those who need a quiet place to avoid becoming overstimulated.

“It’s difficult to live in a world where people communicate with their body,” said Hardwick, who retired last year.

Today, Hardwick is known as “the autism pastor.” He speaks to faith groups around the nation about the need to make­ places of worship more inclusive and accessible for people with disabilities.

“When I was growing up, people didn’t talk about disabilities that much,” he said. “People with disabilities were invisible to the broader community. Today we no longer have to be in the shadows.”

Hardwick’s church instituted several programs to help others with sensory processing issues and other disabilities. The church offered sensory kits that include noise-cancelling headphones, which help calm those sensitive to loud noises like the organ, drums and choir. They made changes in the lighting to make it easier for those with mobility or vision issues. They improved signage in the parking lot and inside the church.

Including more people with disabilities

According to the Collaborative on Faith & Disabilities website, 84% of people with disabilities say their faith is important to them. A third of parents changed their place of worship because their child was not included or welcomed.

Another study in the Journal of Disability & Religion examined clergy’s thoughts on training and including children with disabilities.

It found that 68% of religious leaders said they had not received training about supporting children with disabilities in congregational settings and 66% said they would like training on supporting parents of children with disabilities.

Despite those statistics, just 10% of faith communities make disability awareness a priority.

Dom Kelly, founder and president of the Atlanta-based New Disabled South, an advocacy group for people with disabilities, thinks he knows why.

“I think religious organizations have a long way to go when it comes to both inclusion and accessibility.” And, as the population of people with disabilities grows, Kelly said those groups “must either gain more members or push more people away.”

Kelly can offer suggestions to make spaces more accessible.

“I’ve been able to come up with access solutions that aren’t expensive and they may not think about. They may not have the same solutions that we do,” said Kelly, who is an ambulatory wheelchair user, which means he doesn’t have to use it all of the time.

“The accessibility part is really the bare minimum,” he said. “That should be a given. We want to be able to be included in all the ritual practices that go on in religious spaces.”

Advocates say people with disabilities do not want to be viewed as “the other.” They want to be treated and included like everyone else in the congregation. That means singing in the choir and being part of various congregational committees.

Advocates hope more churches leaders will ask themselves what accommodations are possible: What does it cost to move the choir to the floor so everybody can sing? What happens if a congregant doesn’t have hearing aids but isn’t deaf and can’t read sign language? Or are there people with digestive issues that can’t take communion?

A range of solutions

The disability community is broad and can include a wide range of disabilities, such as hearing loss, vision issues, mobility issues, the effects of a stroke or heart attack or some other illness.

“If you live long enough, at some point in time everyone will be disabled in some form or manner,” said Teresa L. Fry Brown, the Bandy Professor of Preaching at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology. Brown recently led a three-day conference, “No Longer Invisible.” to spark conversations around disability among individuals and communities of faith. “It’s a human reality.”

Bishop Dedric Avery of Salt and Light Truth Center in Decatur was serving as a chaplain for a high school football team and standing on the sidelines when he got hit during a game. As a result of his injury, doctors told him that he would never walk again without an aid.

He no longer preaches from the pulpit, which would require him to walk up five steps. Instead, he delivers the sermon from a spot in front of the sanctuary.

Norma Stanley and her daughter, Sierra, now go to Avery’s church. Sierra, now 35, was diagnosed with cerebral palsy and microcephaly when she was 9 months old. Microcephaly is a birth defect in which a person’s head is smaller when compared to standardized charts. It can cause developmental delays, vision and mobility issues.

She used to take Sierra to a DeKalb County church, but said they didn’t always feel comfortable or welcome. Eventually, they both stopped going to church and instead watched services online until they found Salt and Light Truth Center in Decatur.

“I wanted people to be comfortable, but I also wanted Sierra to be comfortable with who she is,” said Stanley.

Other places of worship also have programs in place.

Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta has an active deaf ministry. It has also launched a new ministry that serves as a support group for members who have disabilities or need some special help, and enlists members who have training in special education.

The Rev. John H. Vaughn, the historic church’s executive pastor, said the church is compiling a glossary of terms, expanding the number of assisted listening devices, and plans to conduct a survey to get a better sense of congregants needs.

Ebenezer is renovating its education building and considering a sensory room. The church also uses golf carts to ferry people from the a nearby parking lot to the sanctuary.

“We’re really taking this journey to be much more intentional about what it means to embrace the beloved community and the beloved community means everyone,” he said.

Yvette Pegues could walk when she joined First Baptist Church Woodstock 20 years ago. Complications from surgery left her unable to walk. She is now CEO of “Your Invisible Disability Group,” a nonprofit she started. It helps people with newly-acquired disabilities or a recent diagnosis find resources.

A former Ms. Wheelchair International, Pegues said she found allies in her pastor and church family, who made sure she could still be a fully involved member.

Today she sometimes does the altar call and helps run the information desk. When she sang with the choir, the other singers would leave the choir loft and come down to the main floor to accommodate her.

First Baptist Church Woodstock is building an entire mission program for people with disabilities to go on mission trips. The church’s Thrive Special Needs Ministry works with youth and adults who currently range in age from two to 60, said Director Valeria Lobo.

Passion City Church also has sensory rooms to serve youth who have physical or mental disabilities so they can gather with others their age.

The ultimate goal, said Jennifer Sheehan, a spokeswoman, is to provide an inclusive space with all the other children and youth for worship and teaching. “There is always a volunteer specifically for those with needs, and we provide items like headphones to bring comfort in a louder environment,” she said.

Rabbi Joshua Heller, senior rabbi at Congregation B’nai Torah in Sandy Springs, said the congregation has a vibrant outreach program for people with disabilities. It includes working with youth with special needs to have a bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah where the rituals match their abilities.

“We’ve recognized the importance of letting people with disabilities be their own advocates. God created all of us as we are. There is an idea in Judaism that every soul is of infinite value, therefore the community has an obligation to make sure every person has the ability to participate as fully as they can.”

© 2024 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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