Feature Issue on Engaging Communities Underrepresented in Disability Research
Belonging Without Borders
Muslim immigrants account for 58% of America’s Muslim diaspora, notably hailing from more than 75 countries, according to a 2018 Pew Research Center report . They speak diverse languages, have various cultural affiliations, and differ in their practice of Islam. Although they are not a monolith, their faith communities often serve as an integral component of their religious and social well-being. For families of individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD), however, finding a fit within their faith-based communities is often a challenge.
Despite the promise of faith-based inclusion, Muslim parents of children with disabilities often encounter stigma and taboo at a disability diagnosis and receive limited educational and social support from mosques, as we described in a 2021 Journal of Disability & Religion article . Lack of community engagement for individuals with disabilities points to larger structural, educational, social, and financial deficits that compound barriers to inclusion for Muslim families of children with disabilities. Since each mosque operates independently, few models exist for including, welcoming, serving, and empowering parents of children with disabilities within Muslim congregations. Some organizations have transformed this narrative by offering belonging and inclusive spaces for Muslim families.
A Model of a Muslim Organization
I was introduced to Dar-us-Sakina (DUS) through a local Houston organization serving families of children with disabilities, the Family-to-Family Network. I connected with the leads of the adult programs and shared a little about my personal role as a sibling and a professional role as a researcher/scholar.
Dar-us-Sakina (DUS) is a non-profit organization in Houston, Texas that offers educational, social, faith-based, and overall well-being resources and support for families of individuals with disabilities/special needs. The organization envisions “a Muslim community where individuals with disabilities are fully accepted and included, and both they and their caregivers have adequate access to support.” DUS’s success centers on its mission to integrate the values of Islam to advance parent support and empowerment for Muslim families. DUS is a transformative movement that embraces faith-based community values beyond traditional support typically available in mosques to fully meet the needs of families. Founded by parents, DUS now offers various social and educational opportunities for families, individuals with disabilities, and the larger Muslim community to belong. There are other programs in the United States with similar goals, including Muhsen.
Social opportunities such as the Power Moms, Power Dads, and Power Sibling groups offer families online and in-person community-focused opportunities to share resources, form lifelong connections, and empower one another. Inclusive events are offered throughout the year for all families to meet in person, participate in inclusive engagement opportunities, and for the child to build social connections with their community.
Faith-centered opportunities for children and youth with disabilities include The Sunday School program, which is in partnership with regional Islamic societies to offer location-based classes. The Sunday School Program offers Quran classes and religious education on a weekly basis. DUS also provides behavioral support to students in inclusive and self-contained environments based on their individual needs (e.g., behavioral therapists and trained volunteers).
DUS offers families and individuals with disabilities a range of educational opportunities to support their evolving needs. For parents, educational webinars are conducted in partnership with experts in the field to increase their knowledge and offer culturally affirming resources. Additionally, families are offered well-being sessions with professionals to manage stress, learn coping skills, and increase their overall well-being. Financial support is also available to parents to access referrals, medical equipment, and other expenses related to caring for children with disabilities. Transition-related opportunities are also available through the Teen Adult Program, where young adults learn transition to adulthood skills (e.g., cooking, fitness, social skills) in a social environment. DUS is also planning to partner with community employers (e.g., entrepreneurs in the Muslim community) and employment stakeholders (e.g., professionals, vocational rehabilitation, school districts) to offer job coaching, internships, and employment opportunities for young adults in the future.
Belonging that matters
Intentional efforts are made by DUS to recruit, mentor, and empower local community leaders, youth, and professionals within the community to increase inclusion and belonging for all. While these individuals may not be part of the disability community, the goal of DUS is to expand its impact by educating and supporting everyone within the community about disability, disability justice, and inclusion. For instance, the one-year Internship Program offers individuals 18 years and older opportunities to receive education and training in various disability-related fields. It aims to increase their capacity and expertise to support individuals with disabilities. The Volunteer Enrichment Program trains youth (13-17 years of age) to serve as peer buddies for youth with disabilities, emphasizing the need to bring inclusion within the community as early as possible through social opportunities. Lastly, the Youth Inclusion Training program educates youth using an Islamic-centered approach in disability terminology, person-first language, and character development to bridge faith values within disability inclusion and belonging.
Proposing A New Model: Multi-Tiered Approach to Belonging for Faith Communities
Faith-based belonging centers the values of the faith community to advance equity, inclusion, and belonging for families of children with disabilities. In addition to the model of belonging offered by Erik Carter and colleagues in a 2016 Christian Education Journal article , I offer a Multi-Tiered Approach to Belonging for Faith Communities. This model, as evidenced by Dar-us-Sakina in Texas, uses faith values to drive the work outside of the traditional congregational space. It still grounds the families in the teachings and values of the faith while offering an inclusive community that seeks to strengthen educational and social support for families. For faith-based communities, belonging demands a multi-tiered approach that offers multiple avenues for families to remain engaged and socially connected with one another (see model).
Four critical dimensions of belonging include social, faith-centered, educational, and outreach efforts. Social belonging connects families together and increases a sense of community among families, caregivers, and individuals with IDD. In traditional congregations, individuals with disabilities often feel excluded from activities and families struggle to belong. This model offers families an inclusive platform to build connections and retain their community engagement. Faith-centered belonging intentionally integrates supports that might be typically offered in congregations (e.g., religious classes) with individualized support (e.g., behavior support) to provide an inclusive learning space for individuals with disabilities. Educational belonging provides families with culturally responsive and affirming resources that advance their knowledge and advocacy-related practices. This approach to belonging creates comfort, safety, and confidence for parents to navigate resources alongside their community members and receive ongoing supports. Finally, a multi-tiered approach to belonging should also consider impactful belonging, that expands inclusion to other community members. This approach seeks to offer community integration rather than exclusion. It echoes that faith-based inclusion affects every community member, and serves as a reminder that everyone deserves to belong within their communities. As we continue to think about increasing a sense of belonging in faith communities, we must shift towards models that integrate faith-based values with multi-tiered approaches to belonging to increase community inclusion, particularly for immigrant and other marginalized communities.
The Multi-Tiered Approach to Belonging for Faith Communities is a promising model to explore inclusion and belonging for individuals who belong to diverse faith communities. It needs to be further explored in research, however. My next steps are to integrate this model in developing and evaluating a transition-focused parent intervention for Muslim South Asian parents of children with disabilities. This model would be used to engage parents using the four tiers in the training sessions and develop measures to assess these tiers in a culturally affirming intervention. I envision using this framework to develop, assess, and examine culturally affirming parent interventions that advance parent outcomes related to social inclusion and belonging.