FAQs and Resources for Reaching the Special Needs Community
We have broken down some of the most common characteristics of differently-abled people who are likely to be part of your church family. While this is by no means an exhaustive list, it is an excellent example of the approach you can take to most effectively communicate with every single member of your church.
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)
Autism Speaks defines ASD as “a broad range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech, and nonverbal communication.” It goes on to note that 1 in 59 children have an ASD diagnosis, which means the odds of working with a child with ASD in your church are high. So what are the best ways to communicate with someone on the spectrum?
The first thing that is important for you to remember is that while someone with ASD may appear to be typical, their needs are authentic. If you’re working with a child, find out some information about them beforehand to aid in your initial interaction. For instance, you might ask the child’s parents if the child has a favorite book or television show. Remember, many people with ASD do not follow typical conventions when it comes to social interaction. The person may not make eye contact, may rock back and forth while speaking or listening, or may show little regard for your feelings or opinions. Try not to take this personally, and continue to pursue the conversation so the person you’re speaking with can have their questions answered and their needs met.
Don’t forget that ASD is a spectrum—this means you can put two people with ASD side by side and see a vast range of varying needs. While you cannot assume the needs of one person are also the needs of the next person, you can be confident that every person with ASD does want to be treated with respect and shown the same consideration you would give anyone else in your church.
People whose needs are primarily rooted in physical disabilities are similar to those with ASD in that their needs will vary widely, depending on the areas in which they need the most assistance. Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that a physical impairment does not necessarily mean a cognitive impairment is also present. Many times, you will find that someone with a physical disability is just as capable and independent as their typical peers, and only needs some assistance in navigating the physical terrain.
Handling physical disabilities is where your church must stay up-to-date on information like the standard width for wheelchair-friendly doors; how to place ramps in convenient, usable locations; and how many accessible parking spaces need to be available at all times. Make sure that your signage clearly marks which restrooms can accommodate assistive devices and wheelchairs, and where the elevator is at (if your church has multiple floors). Create specific areas in your worship center for people who are using wheelchairs or other assistive devices, like crutches, to navigate to and worship from safely.
When you send mass communications to your church, be sure to include information about accommodations for physical needs. Indicate whether stairs are the only option or if elevator access is nearby, and what kind of emergency services and resources are directly available in the event of a fall or other injury.
Complete or Partial Hearing Loss
If you have members of the Deaf Community in your church family, you will want to ensure that you tailor your communication to suit their needs. We mentioned having adequate signage that indicated accommodations for physical needs. It is equally important to have signs that direct people around your church in general, especially if they are unable to hear and may have difficulty getting directions from someone. Make your signage clear and err on the side of having too many signs instead of having too few.
It is also a good idea for your staff to learn some common phrases in American Sign Language, also known as ASL. Not every Deaf person speaks ASL, but having some phrases ready for those who do can be helpful. Otherwise, be prepared to write or text your answers to a Deaf person in need of information. Many Deaf people prefer to write or text, as it is a universal method of communication, regardless of whether someone can read lips or sign.
When you are speaking to a Deaf person, talk normally! You do not need to speak more slowly or loudly unless the person asks you to do so. Try not to cover your hands with your mouth in case someone is reading your lips, and make an effort to have your conversation in a room that is well-lit, so the person you are speaking with can see you, a translator, or a written message.
There are all types of special needs and hundreds of ideas on communicating with every person in your church. Take some time to do your research on the best ways to effectively reach people or families with special needs, and watch your church family grow in immeasurable ways.