Impact Feature Issue on Faith Communities and Persons with Developmental Disabilities

Congregational Roles in Community Inclusion Across the Lifespan


Angela Novak Amado is Research Associate with the Research and Training Center on Community Living, Institute on Community Integration, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis. She may be reached  at amado003@umn.edu.

Sara Rubinow Simon is retired Director of the Special Needs Department, Board of Jewish Education of Greater Washington, Rockville, Maryland. She may be reached  at srsimon@erols.com.

The broad vision of inclusive communities encompasses inclusion in all aspects of life – home, work, recreation, and worship. Although various efforts have greatly expanded the physical presence of individuals with developmental disabilities in many community locations, there is still a significant distance to go toward full social inclusion. Even though individuals with disabilities may live in ordinary neighborhoods, attend regular schools, and have community jobs, many are still socially isolated and friendless. Most nondisabled community members do not have any friends who have developmental disabilities.

While different initiatives in supported community living continue to expand the social inclusion of individuals with developmental disabilities, inclusion through places of worship presents unique and extraordinary opportunities. Many community bridge-building efforts have found various churches, synagogues, and other congregations to be some of the most excellent avenues for true inclusion. More than any other community group, people of faith in all types of congregations have immediately grasped the message of full inclusion and extended themselves in significant ways to include, value, and befriend persons with developmental disabilities.

For those congregations just starting down that path, as well as for those seeking to do more, this article discusses inclusion in faith communities at various stages of the individual’s lifespan. Also addressed are ways in which congregations can further the inclusion of individuals with developmental disabilities in the broader social community.

Preschool Age Programs

When selecting nursery school and day care programs for their young children, parents often look to their faith communities. As more synagogues, churches and mosques establish these programs, parents tend to choose familiar settings where they are comfortable with program content and the values that are being taught. At the time when parents of young children with disabilities approach their congregation in order to enroll their children in classes, they are frequently overwhelmed by doctors’ appointments, therapy and counseling sessions, and the stresses of caring for their child with special needs. All too frequently, they are told that the program cannot accommodate the child and that they must look elsewhere. Many parents see this as being cut off and cast out from the source of their spiritual support – and many bitterly opt out of their association with a congregation.

However, that picture is slowly changing. The current public education environment has shaped education in religious settings, as well. The landmark 1975 Education for All Handicapped Children Act (Public Law 94-142), revised in 1997 as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), requires that children with special needs be educated in their public schools in the most appropriate and least restrictive environment possible. Although faith communities are not subject to the same legal obligations as public schools, there is a strong moral mandate that entitles every family to find a place within the religious setting of their choice.

Early childhood programs, in particular, lend themselves to welcoming and accommodating children with disabilities. Increasing numbers of young children with disabilities are becoming part of regular congregational nursery school or daycare programs, either through the availability of part-time programs to supplement the clinical or public school early childhood special education programs, or through provision of the necessary supports by specialists within the religious institution’s own program. In these programs, the presence of a classroom aide often helps the child’s integration and also helps the classroom teacher.

Young children are curious about other girls and boys. They see each other’s external appearances, interests, strengths, and challenges. They learn social skills and how to interact appropriately from each other. Youngsters with “differences” are often quickly befriended and accepted naturally and without reservation. The ongoing presence of families with children with special needs in early childhood and congregational activities tends to ease the anxiety of congregants who are not accustomed to individuals with disabilities – and the early childhood classmates are often model advocates of inclusion.

Elementary Through High School

When children with disabilities reach elementary school age, the situation can become both easier and harder. Although elementary age students are supposedly more sophisticated, academic demands increase and social issues become more complex. In addition, many teachers in religious school programs are not trained educators and most have had little to no experience instructing students with special learning needs. They often become frustrated and unwilling to devote extra effort to including these youngsters in class activities.

Even with the best of intentions, any given learning environment may be restrictive for an individual student unless a continuum of options is available. These options include support for the regular teacher to help him or her build- in accommodations and modifications for the student with learning differences through consultation with his/her secular school teacher; resource help through specific skill instruction geared to individual needs; team-teaching by special education and regular classroom personnel; and, if necessary, specialized self-contained classes that provide intensive, highly individualized instruction with a low student-teacher ratio. Having a trained aide in the classroom to assist the youngster with disabilities as well as the teacher can make the difference between the ability to attend a congregational program and exclusion.

Besides congregational Sunday schools and religious schools, parochial day schools can also offer a range of supports for students with disabilities. Sadly, very few parochial schools currently accept students with developmental disabilities. Once again, exclusion of children with disabilities has a spiritual impact on families. Although most of the teachers have had pedagogic training, parochial schools often are constrained by budgetary limitations, additional expenses, and the intensity of the curriculum. However, a variety of development programs can be offered that enable educators to understand the nature and needs of diverse learners. Expanding beyond the concept of “special education” as involving only a small segment of the population, educators can broaden their understanding of the individual learning needs of all children. While it may appear to be a costly undertaking, the concept of inclusion is in keeping with religious precepts.

The religious/parochial school classroom is a living laboratory for implementing the religious values of dignity of the individual and acts of loving kindness. By creating a “caring community” within the classroom, students get to actually practice reaching out to others and collaborating to make it possible for everyone to function effectively and comfortably. Classmates can be helped to appreciate individual differences as a religious value and the youngsters with disabilities benefit from interacting with typical peers.

In addition, as children with developmental and other disabilities approach the times for celebrating the usual religious milestones of young people, they can be involved in learning the rituals and prayers that will enable them to take their rightful places in their congregations. By starting early and breaking down the material into smaller components that can be rehearsed and mastered, they can participate in the worship services to the best of their abilities. Fortunately, it is rare these days to find a congregation that will not allow them to celebrate becoming a Bar or Bat Mitzvah, or receive communion or confirmation.

Supports for Adults

While many students experience inclusion in their regular school classrooms and in religious programs, once a child graduates he or she often becomes more isolated. Upon graduation, school friends often go off to college or other lives. There is no adult social structure comparable to school in which everyone of the same age participates.

Faith communities can play a major role in the valuing and inclusion of adults with developmental disabilities in at least two significant ways. First, true inclusion takes more than an individual simply attending weekly services, and takes more than providing classes which separate people with disabilities from the rest of the church community. Congregations can provide opportunities for full participation through their regular adult committees or groups, such as men’s groups, women’s groups, choir, church decorating, ushers, etc. – in other words, opportunities for people to build deeper and more personal connections with one another.

Secondly, congregation members can extend themselves in individual friendships, both within the church and the wider community. Social ministry programs can identify more isolated congregation members and provide fellowship and friendship. Structured programs like Robert Wood Johnson’s Faith in Action initiatives have provided many opportunities for true friendship, which others can emulate even without a structured program. Sometimes adults with disabilities who live with their parents remain somewhat isolated within the family structure. Other congregation members can reach out to support expansion of the social networks of these individuals.


Congregations play a key role in promoting inclusive communities. Supporting inclusion through faith communities reinforces wholeness on the individual and societal levels. An individual’s wholeness depends on addressing all their needs, including spiritual needs. A community’s wholeness depends on the valuing, participating, and belonging of all its members.