If you’ve never been around children with disabilities, or if you’ve had limited interactions with them, chances are you don’t feel very comfortable or knowledgeable in your interactions. After all, how do you interact with a child who is nonverbal? How do you relate to a child who uses a wheelchair and is unable to participate with the rest of the class due to mobility issues?
As I work with church leaders, it’s not uncommon for me to address these questions. Chances are, you’ve had similar reservations. So let’s talk about four key aspects of disability etiquette when interacting with children (or adults) who are disabled.
- When in doubt, treat children with disabilities the same way you would treat typical children of the same age.
If you work with a 12-year-old who has a disability, you don’t treat them like they are five or six. Here’s a good way to think about it. You know how sometimes we use a cute voice when we talk to babies or little children? Many older kids with disabilities (and even adults!) continue to be addressed that same way. One of my daughters has cerebral palsy. She is 10 years old. I cannot count the times she has come home and cried, “Why do they treat me like a baby!” I know, and she knows, that people are not purposefully being ableists, but it still hurts her deeply. Also, think about how that could impact a child’s self esteem.
Remember, even if a child has an intellectual disability, they have had the same life experiences as typical kids their age. A teenager with an intellectual disability is still going through the challenges of being in middle school, they are still going through changes in their body because of hormones (yes, they might be dating or have a crush on someone), so the best rule of thumb is to always treat them age appropriately.
- Unless parents state otherwise, keep children with disabilities in their age-appropriate group.
I’m sure you’ve heard a phrase similar to this, “She is 12, but developmentally she’s more like a 5-year-old.” Like a good friend of mine says, a person’s developmental level does not slow down their aging. Do you really want a teenager in a class with elementary school age children? Probably not. Should a 6-year-old be in a class with toddlers? It might not be safe.
Another thing to think about is what an arrangement like this communicates to the rest of the congregation and to the other children. Disability attitudes are taught and learned. It also openly and visibly separates the child who has a disability. We do not want to teach that those with disabilities are incapable or unable to participate in our congregations. We want to build on the strengths we all have. We want to show what the body of Christ looks like, even in our children’s ministry.
My 8-year-old has Down syndrome and I expect her to be with children her age—just as she is in school. Yes, she might need extra support. But here is the beauty of what can happen at church: sometimes the support comes from her peers, and right there you have the body of Christ working together. And sometimes, of course, the support comes from an adult.
If a parent asks you for this arrangement, I would urge you to have a conversation with the parent and present the idea to first give it a go with the age appropriate group. Sometimes the parents need some guidance, too.
- 3. Always assume competence.
Let me say that again because it is so important: always assume competence.
Even parents and professionals don’t always have an accurate idea of the child’s capabilities. There are countless stories of children who were presumed to have intellectual disabilities and at some point (upper elementary, teenage years, even adulthood) they discover a communication system that works and what these children are saying is mind blowing. So much was assumed, and these kids were taking it all in, all the messages about them, their disability, life, the good, the bad. They’re listening. They are competent.
When it comes to church and faith, many of these children are talking about what they’re learning during Sunday school and during the sermon. They are talking about having a personal relationship with Christ. The reality is, our soul connection to God is the same.
You might have kids right now in your ministry who are assumed not to understand, but friend, they are!
- Treat children with disabilities with dignity and respect.
I know how uncertain it can be to approach someone who is different, who might not be able to have a conversation with you, or who shows no interest in what you’re saying. Yes, it can be challenging!
They say practice makes perfect, right? Sometimes it takes a few tries, but the more you talk to children with disabilities, the more comfortable you will feel.
I’ve mentioned a few times to think about age-appropriate interactions, and it is possible that you will have no idea how old the child is. Ask them! Your first interaction can be one where you ask for their name and their age. And hear me here, even if a child is nonverbal, ask them. Look directly at them and ask them.
The parent might respond for them, but make it an interaction between you and the child. Treating someone with dignity and respect can be as simple as acknowledging their presence; it recognizes their full humanity. Many conversations are about them and around them, so make your interaction be WITH them.
Friends, we have a great privilege to invest in these children and to teach them about Jesus. All children, all people, are capable of having a thriving relationship with Christ, even if it looks different to each one of us. Everyone can be discipled. Everyone can know Jesus.