When my daughter, Kathleen, was 5 years old she was invited to a Kindergarten classmate’s arts-and-crafts themed birthday party. Now this might not seem like a big deal, but Kathleen was different from those around her, and was rarely invited to birthday parties, so we were really excited to go!  In case you haven’t met Kathleen, when she’s at coffee hour after church, she’s the young lady in the wheelchair with her iPad in tow. She lives life with a muscle disorder that affects her in a pervasive way—she’s non-verbal and has mobility challenges. She’s had severe learning disabilities and reading and math have not been in the cards for her (she’s 26 now).

But back to the party! Towards the end of the festivities the children got to dance under a disco ball and play some games like the limbo. These were hard activities for Kathleen to participate in but she was enjoying watching the fun. A little brother of one of her classmates was hanging out near us with his mom and I could see him studying Kathleen. It’s obvious from a glance that Kathleen lives life with some challenges. 

After the party was over Kathleen and I made our way to our car. I had settled her in the car seat and was putting her wheelchair in the back when I saw the cute boy I had noticed at the party standing by their car, which was next to ours. He was quietly saying something to his mom, who then walked over to me with her son. In my head I was preparing some answers to the questions I assumed he might ask, like “why can’t she talk?” or “why didn’t she dance with her friends?” or even, “what’s wrong with her?”. These are totally natural and even good questions for children (or others) to ask.  So with my inner dialogue ramped up, imagine how I felt when his mother said, “He just wants her to know he loves her.” 

It’s been a long time since that day, but that moment is still vivid in my memory. I can only speak from personal experience, but raising a child with disabilities can be an isolating experience, and one of exclusion, so this was like a cup of fresh water that I desperately needed after those initial years of coping with the reality that we would be on a different journey as a family. 

I think that prior to my own parenting experience with Kathleen, I was fairly oblivious to the subtle and not-so-subtle ways individuals with disabilities are excluded or judged or avoided. We have struggled at our own church to get it right at times. It took a lot of debate and discussion about whether to invest in an elevator in our building more than 15 years ago. I remember saying to our then senior minister, Rev. Bill Steele that having just returned from a family vacation at Disney World, that we felt more included there than at our own church—partly because the staff was so welcoming and helpful, but also because clearly much thought had been given to making the park accessible. Ultimately, we did build it thanks to the fundraising efforts led by church lay leader, Chris Eldridge. I can’t imagine our church without an elevator today, but it’s easy to take it for granted.

It takes intention and effort to walk in someone else’s shoes, but we know in John 13:34-35, Jesus tells his disciples about a new commandment, “…that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know you are my disciples, if you love one another.”  And one way we can do this is to continually look for ways to make our church a welcoming place for families and individuals with physical or developmental disabilities. Each year we hold a “Disability Awareness Challenge”, this year it will be held on Sunday, Oct. 15, during coffee hour where interactive experiences designed for youth and adults are set up. These stations are meant to simulate in a very simplistic way what it might be like to live life with a challenge to vision, attention, reading, etc. 

But there’s more for us to do here at RCB. With that in mind, we are forming a Disability and Inclusion Team and would love to have you join Shea Scanlon Lomma and myself for our first meeting to consider ways we can improve access and engagement for all people in the life of our church. We’ll also share some ideas and actions we are taking to help inform and inspire our church community. Please join us in The Copenhaver Room on Sunday, Sept. 17, 11:45am-1:00pm. We just ask that you RSVP by Tuesday, Sept. 12, so we can plan for food and materials. Please email me if you are interested in attending or would like to learn more. 

We hope to see you there!