Creating a Welcoming Environment for Guests with Special Needs

by | Leadership, volunteers

In a previous article, we discussed how to create a welcoming environment for regular attendees with special needs to get involved in ministry opportunities at your church. Now, let’s discuss how you can create a welcoming environment for first-time guests with special needs and their families who may come to your church.

It can be a daunting experience for any new person or family coming to your church for the first time. To help someone entering into your building, you may provide clear signage and greeters to help them know where to go. Perhaps you offer coffee services. Childcare provided in a secure area brings an ease of mind to parents. While all of this is excellent to include for every new attendee, what more can we do to help those with special needs feel welcome?

Make It Known on Your Website What Resources You Have Available

For many people, the first thing they’ll do is look up your church online. If you don’t let them know how your church is prepared to love and support individuals with special needs in the places where they’re looking for information, it makes it much more intimidating to walk into your building.

Brittany Siringer, a parent of a child with autism, shared her family’s experience with finding a new church. “My daughter was 9 months old when we started attending a church consistently, and it was after that when her disabilities started to manifest. Since the people in that church already knew her before her disabilities appeared, they already loved her, so they accepted her as her behaviors changed. We went through a rough couple of years with her diagnosis and felt that we were being called to a different church. The only problem was, we were nervous about going somewhere else. We were afraid people wouldn’t accept us or would look at our family as a burden because she required more than a typical child. We were fearful if her needs could be met and felt whatever church we chose would view our family as an encumbrance.”

To help families like the Siringers, offer a place on your website with services and resources your church has in place for individuals with special needs. This can offer peace of mind to those who are looking for a church. List these things in multiple places where people will look (for example, in your Newcomer section, under the Childcare section, etc.). It can remove that level of fear to a point where they might be willing to trust that you know how to care for them and their loved ones.

Assign Helpers Near the Entrance

Who are the first people guests are likely to meet when they walk into your building? Most likely, it will be one of your Greeters or Welcome Team volunteers. How can these individuals connect with these newcomers?

First of all, train your volunteers to make all people feel welcome, including people who may have obvious disabilities. “Make sure you’re not making assumptions when meeting someone with disabilities,” suggests April Herrold, a Certified Occupational Therapist Assistant. “The first impression is the thing they’ll see first. Are we seeing them as an actual person or are we looking at them as a disability? A simple ‘Hi!’ can help if you don’t know what to say.”

After that, introduce them to someone who can show them around and invite them to sit together. This person could be someone who has experience and training working with individuals with special needs, or it can be a volunteer you train. 

Get to Know Them and Their Needs

The next goal is to help them transition into this unfamiliar environment. In order to best help any individual with special needs, you need to understand what those needs are. You also need to know how to interact with them in a way that respects them as the individuals they are. Here are some tips Herrold suggests to keep in mind for your helpers who are assigned to get them acquainted with the church building:

  • If someone has a speech impediment, make sure you ask for clarity if you don’t understand them. Don’t just smile and nod if you don’t understand.
  • If someone looks like they need physical assistance, ask before reaching out to them. If they grant permission, offer your arm for them to grab. Don’t grab their arm—it can make them feel like you think they’re too weak. If they have the ability to reach out and touch you, it’s more comfortable for them. They likely only need you for support, not to carry them.
  • When talking with them, always talk in an adult voice as you would to anyone else, even if they’re an adult who seems childlike. Treat them as the human being they are.
  • Ask them what needs they have. If a child with disabilities comes in, talk to the parents about what their child needs. 
    • Do they have issues with sensory overload? What helps them feel comfortable in their home, work, or classroom settings? Do they prefer small groups?
    • Do they have any technological needs, such as audio hearing systems, larger print materials, captioning, or sign language interpretation?
    • Do they need special seating options? If they’re in a wheelchair, provide space for them to sit with their family or with your helper. If they need special seating, provide seating options with good back support (i.e., higher-backed chairs, plush chairs with no wheels, etc.). Perhaps they need to sit in a chair that is against the wall so it won’t move when they get up.
  • Provide safety protocols to watch for children and individuals who may wander outside.
  • Offer familiar faces who work with them each week and create routines for them to feel safe.

Be Prepared for Triggers to Cause Disruptions

All of us have moments that trigger us and cause us to think back to a situation where we felt uncomfortable. This can leave us feeling unsettled in the current situation, even if it’s a safe environment. Most people have the ability to transition out of that triggering moment and stay calm and focused in the present. However, some people struggle to do this well. When that happens, make sure your helpers and congregation are prepared for these moments.

“My husband and I have struggled with the outward responses from others that come from having a child with special needs,” shared Siringer. “Our daughter struggles with personal space and she can’t maintain conversation like her same-aged peers. She struggles to regulate her emotions and can be sensory overloaded. Praise God that we haven’t had many experiences where she wasn’t accepted. But we not only want her to be accepted, we want to see her grow spiritually.” 

When a person is triggered in the service or in a classroom (i.e., they scream or run around, etc.), try to calm them down. If that doesn’t work, you can escort them to the lobby or hallway to remove them from the triggering cause. “For some people, loud music can upset them, so having them enjoy the worship portion of the service from the lobby helps them stay engaged, but in a lower sensory area,” says Herrold. 

Whatever the trigger, finding out how to calm them down is the most important thing. Never manhandle someone unless you have written consent from them or their parents. Look for patterns if the triggers happen often, and remove those items, if possible. 

If others around the individual have gotten scared or upset during the episode, take them to a different part of the room or somewhere else if possible. Redirect them until the situation is under control. If someone needs to talk about what happened, give them space to do so in a safe environment. Then help them learn how to be prepared for the situation to happen again so they can respond in kindness instead of fear.

Introduce Them to Others Who Have Family Members with Disabilities

Connecting families together who have members with disabilities can be a great way to form lasting relationships that will help everyone learn from each other and support each other. “It’s so hard mentally to go through life as a parent of a child with special needs, especially when you first hear the diagnosis,” shared Siringer. “Those are dark days; you deal with resentment, anger, fear, and wonder what you did wrong, so when you have others around you that you can turn to, it helps to not feel alone.” 

These connections not only offer mentoring opportunities, they allow families to walk through life together with faith, encouraging each other to grow in their relationship with God as they grow in relationship with others. Siringer also says that this can take the focus off of how to fix it yourself, which is very tempting to do as a family member. “When I was lacking in my faith, I blamed myself for my daughter’s challenges. I was in denial of her needs and felt I could just do something to fix her. I spent so much of my time and money trying to find ways to fix her challenges, instead of embracing who God made my daughter to be. An accepting church family helps build that community together. Knowing that she is accepted and being discipled by many members of the church has allowed my husband and me to grow deeper in our faith.”

Offer Assistance & Resources for Special Events and Long-Term Growth

Providing a ministry that serves individuals with disabilities and their families is a great way to grow awareness in your church while offering added support to families. This type of community provides a safe place for families to learn how to let go of fears they may have around their family members’ disabilities. It can be scary for parents to let their children experience new things, but it’s a vital part of the journey. If there are options to do these things in safe and meaningful ways, it’s a win-win for everyone.

“My daughter is going to church camp this summer, and I never thought that would be a possibility,” says Siringer. “I wrestled with whether or not I should go and be present, but I knew she wouldn’t be able to have the independence she needs. So, our church is providing an adult to go and assist her. This is someone who has been working with her at church, and I feel so much better about letting her go now. Instead of restricting her because of my own fears, I need to let go and trust that new experiences can be good.”

Other suggestions to help support and care for individuals with special needs and their families include:

  • Have adults in the church form mentoring connections with adults and children with disabilities. Find hobbies you can do together, like learning how to fish or sew. Maybe some men in the church could take a boy with special needs out for his birthday or on a field trip. 
  • Assign student mentors for children with disabilities. This offers a level of peer safety that they need. Encourage these mentors to meet them at the door when they arrive at church and walk them to their classroom.
  • Create a fostering/adopting ministry to support families who have fostered or adopted children with special needs to provide extra help for the unique challenges these families face.

Not only do these opportunities help individuals with special needs experience new things in the world, but it also creates discipleship opportunities and models for them how to live as Christians.

Get Them Connected in a Ministry Opportunity

Regardless of what their age is, get them involved in ministry opportunities. Even children can be involved with the coffee service or as a greeter. If people with disabilities are serving in public roles, it helps others with disabilities feel more welcome to come.

Ultimately, Make Them Feel Like They’re Seen & Loved

“There’s a fine line with people with disabilities when others coddle them too much,” says Siringer. This can lead to an unrealistic environment for how the world really is, so helping them feel safe in a realistic environment is crucial. 

Just like anyone else, we’re called to be iron that sharpens iron (Proverbs 27:17), so let’s find ways to see them and love them and challenge them in their faith. Offer resources to serve their unique needs, but let them know they’re welcome in your church family.

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