Impact Feature Issue on Faith Communities and Persons with Developmental Disabilities
Atlanta's Interfaith Disabilities Network
I talked with a father last week about his son, Brian. Brian just turned nine and is enjoying the new school year. The father was excited because this is the first year that Brian is in a class with other students who do not have a developmental disability. Brian is one of three kids with a developmental disability in the class, and he seems to enjoy school more since he has experienced a fuller amount of inclusion in his classroom. The father expressed feelings of relief, excitement, and encouragement – finally his son had a place at the table. He then paused, thought for a moment, and said, “I wish it was the same at our church.”
Brian’s dad expressed a sentiment shared by many people with disabilities and by their family members. This generation of people with disabilities has experienced a higher level of societal inclusion in schools, jobs, services, etc. We definitely have not arrived, but past legislation has helped to break down some barriers. Yet many of these barriers still exist in our faith communities. Religious communities, not required to meet the standards of the ADA unless accepting federal monies, have often lagged behind in their intent and ability to include people with disabilities. Brian’s church is one of these communities. His dad explains that their church does not discourage Brian’s participation in activities, yet they also do not encourage his inclusion into the full life of the community. It is for people like Brian and his dad, and for the congregations they attend, that the Interfaith Disabilities Network (IDN) exists.
The Network’s History
The Interfaith Disabilities Network was born out of a history of religion and disability work in the metropolitan Atlanta area. Beginning in 1985 the Commission on Disability Concerns of the Christian Council of Metropolitan Atlanta (CCMA) worked to help local congregations become accessible to persons with disabilities. The CCMA is a nonprofit dedicated to helping local Christian congregations become involved in serving the larger community. The Commission on Disability Concerns worked during its existence to help local Christian congregations increase their inclusion of people with disabilities. This committee, comprised of volunteers, held a major conference, published brochures on hospitality and accessibility, and helped educate local congregations in their efforts to become accessible.
Also in the Atlanta area since 1990, the Coordinated Network for Persons with Disabilities (comprised of Jewish Family and Career Services, Jewish Educational Services, and the Atlanta Marcus Jewish Community Center) in the Atlanta Jewish community has been working to help local synagogues welcome persons with disabilities. They offer disability awareness training, architectural accessibility information, and respite services to local synagogues to assist them in becoming accessible. In 1995, Jewish Educational Services began offering educational consulting services.
In its 1999-2000 strategic planning process, the CCMA dissolved the Commission on Disability Concerns. Around the same time the Atlanta Alliance on Developmental Disabilities (AADD), in consultation with the Coordinated Network of Services for Persons with Disabilities, the Shepherd Center (a spinal cord and brain injury specialty hospital), and other local leaders in religion and disability communities began a strategic planning effort to start an interfaith collaborative that would spearhead religion and disability work in Atlanta. In March, 2000, the CCMA “passed the torch” to AADD to not only continue the work of the Commission on Disability Concerns, but to expand this work to include the larger faith community. In July, 2000, AADD began the Interfaith Disabilities Network.
The IDN has a stated mission to advocate for the inclusion of people with disabilities in their faith communities. It is based on the premises that: 1) people with and without disabilities are valuable members of their faith communities; 2) faith communities benefit by removing architectural, attitudinal, and programmatic barriers; and 3) inclusion allows people with and without disabilities to practice their faith and use their gifts in worship, service, study, and leadership. The IDN includes self-advocates, parents, caregivers, professionals, and other interested parties from various disability and faith communities. It is open to the participation of anyone interested in helping advocate for inclusive faith communities. While working with people with developmental disabilities and their families, the IDN is intentional about including and working in various disability communities. This commitment is born of the belief that removing barriers to one disability often dovetails with the steps needed to welcome people with any disability.
The IDN is currently involved in three main areas of activity: collaboration, information-sharing, and community service. In the area of collaboration, the IDN seeks to bring together individuals from various disability communities and faith backgrounds who have experience helping to increase inclusion among faith communities. These individuals, with their wisdom on congregational inclusion, function as a network that is then able to assist other individuals and congregations who are beginning the journey to fully including people with disabilities.
The IDN also is building a database of congregations who state that they “welcome people with disabilities.” Although these congregations are at various stages of accessibility and full inclusion, they all seek to include people with disabilities and are committed to increasing their accessibility. Currently, 60 congregations in the Atlanta area have indicated their commitment to welcome people with disabilities. Information on these congregations is being shared with the community through a collaborative effort of the IDN and Parent to Parent of Georgia.
The IDN is also intimately involved in helping to educate congregations and the larger community about inclusion. It provides education to local congregations on why, what, and how of including people with disabilities. In addition, it works to offer education for local theological schools and for the larger community. An example of this education is a recent forum sponsored by the IDN that featured religious leaders from local Christian, Jewish, and Muslim communities as well as a sociology of religion professor from Emory University. Each presenter dealt with the topic of the religious leadership of people with disabilities, and time was allotted at the close of the forum for group discussion.
Key to the IDN mission and future success is a commitment to community service. In addition to its collaborative efforts, information-sharing, and education, the IDN endeavors to help congregations in the concrete activities of welcoming and including people with disabilities. The Inclusive Congregations Project is helping to further this aim. Members of the IDN realize that congregations often mean different things when they state they are “inclusive” or “accessible.” For one congregation this might mean they have a ramp and accessible bathroom, whereas another congregation might mean that their facility is fully architecturally accessible and they include people with disabilities in all aspects of their community. Facing this disparity of meaning, the IDN is seeking to help congregations set a standard for being inclusive.
Through grants from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Faith in Action Program and the Georgia Governor’s Council on Developmental Disabilities, the IDN is working to help four local congregations become fully accessible and inclusive of people with disabilities. Through this project, the IDN will be able to detail working models of inclusion among Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and Unitarian Universalist faith communities. Congregations from each of these communities have committed to working with the IDN over an 18-month period to 1) document their history and current accessibility/inclusion status; 2) address any areas needed to increase accessibility/inclusion, and 3) begin a respite program to serve people with disabilities and families.
The IDN is in the initial stages of this project. Each congregation is starting the process within their community of forming the committees/taskforces necessary to implement these activities. Each congregation has also informally identified specific needs that respite related services could address. The Unitarian-Universalist congregation has 8-10 children attending their regular religious education classes whose parents have expressed interest in further support. They are brainstorming ways to offer respite not only to these parents but also to the larger community.
A local Jewish synagogue involved in the Inclusive Congregations Project is already involved in respite-related activities through the local Jewish services agencies. Yet they are talking with their youth group about volunteering monthly to help staff a respite home in the community. A local Muslim congregation is attended by 20+ adults with developmental and/or physical disabilities. They are planning to form a local support group that will allow them to encourage each other as well as provide their caregivers time for respite. Finally, a local Baptist congregation that sponsors a group home is looking to further their outreach by partnering with a masjid and synagogue, and jointly offering a community-wide respite program.
Obviously, respite is not the only service that congregations can offer people with disabilities and their families. It is the current focus of the IDN with these four congregations because of related grant stipulations. However, these examples illustrate a point repeatedly learned by members of the IDN – the inclusion of people with disabilities in faith communities is similar whether one is working with a church, synagogue, masjid, or other religious groups. We all have different belief systems and ways of worshipping and serving. Yet, in each of these faith groups there exists a core commitment to allow all seekers to participate in the community and its search for meaning. Once this commitment to inclusion is recognized, congregations within all faith groups can grow in their ability to welcome and include individuals with disabilities. And through the work of the Interfaith Disabilities Network, Brian, his dad, and any other people with and without disabilities can have a place at the table of our faith communities.