Ministering to Teenagers with Disabilities – Part 1
Search the literature of youth ministry for information on ministry to students with physical and mental disabilities and you will find…not much.
The subject is huge, and this author is significantly ignorant. Undoubtedly, there are many people more qualified to write on this subject at large, and people who can write in specific detail on individual disabilities; hopefully they will. This is merely an attempt to get the dialogue started and to give youth ministers at least something to work with in the meanwhile.
We’ll begin by assuming that you already exercise good judgment by following routine good practice in running a youth group like having co-ed adult leadership when you have co-ed teen groups. You’ve read Better Safe Than Sued and err on the side of caution on issues of physical safety for your group. Important as safety and good practice are in general, they become even more critical if you have teens with disabilities in the group, for reasons that will become apparent as we progress.
We’ll define a teen with disabilities as one with one or more permanent, major, life-altering conditions. A teen who by reason of a physical or mental impairment, is or may be expected to be totally or partially incapacitated for independent living or gainful employment.
While every student is unique, there is a special uniqueness to a student with disabilities:
- A blind student has very different practical issues to cope with than a deaf student, than a student with a mental disability, than a wheelchair-bound student.
- A student may have a significant disability she’s learned to cope with so well that it may not be readily apparent. There may be no outward physical manifestation (a student with a heart defect or reduced pulmonary function, for example).
- A student may have multiple disabilities.
- Disabilities may be partial or total. A person may be partially sighted while still “legally” blind, or not legally blind, but with visual acuity too poor to get a drivers license.
- A student may try to hide his disability because he’s ashamed of it.
- A disability may be congenital; it may be acquired before reaching your group; or it may be acquired during the time a teen is a member of your group. The disability may be acquired suddenly or progressively; it may be the result of disease or an accident. The timing and manner of the onset of the disability can have a significant impact on the teen’s progress in dealing with it.
- Disabilities have definite subcultures—as you might expect when people have a commonality of interest. Within the subcultures there can be widely divergent ideas about rehabilitation, appropriate social services, how to relate to the “normal” community, how to cope with the disability, in short about just about every thing to do with the disability.
So What To Do?
The first and last step (obviously, but how often do we overlook the obvious?) is to pray. Pray for the young person to feel welcome. Pray for the other kids to exert themselves to welcome him. Pray for yourself for wisdom and ability.
Building a relationship is key. If you establish trust, it will help you get over the “oops” moments when you do or say something ignorant. And no matter how well-intentioned or sincerely committed to making your ministry open and accessible to the students with disabilities, from time to time you will have awkward moments.
Scope out the kids in the age cohort just before the age of the youth in your ministry. When you know you have a student with disabilities coming up, be proactive, contact the family, and say something like ,”I’m ignorant, and have a lot to learn, but I’m committed to ministering to your child and enabling her to participate in the ministry to the fullest extent possible.”
While you can’t plan your entire program around one student, give the student some consideration and occasionally plan activities in which he can be involved. If you have a visually impaired student, provide materials that are readable. If you have a wheelchair-bound student, keep the junk off the floor, do your best to make your youth room accessible, and select accessible venues for events.
The other students may pull together and welcome the student with disabilities in the group, or maybe not. There may be students who are openly callous and disrespecting. Step on disrespect, teasing, or bullying instantly—and make it an evictable offense if it doesn’t stop. More likely, a substantial percentage of your students may be just as harmful by actively ignoring the teen with disabilities and excluding her from the group. They’re not actively rude; they don’t spit on the kid’s shoes; they just act like she’s not there. Be just as aware of this as you would name-calling. It might not be as obvious but it’s just as important.
All of this is just setting the stage and introducing the conversation. Next week, we’ll talk about some practical things to keep in mind…
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.