Over the past five years or so, I have become much more aware of how many people struggle with connecting with a “regular student ministry program” due to some type of disability or having special needs. Our church is actually the first church that I have worked at that has an entire program for children and students with disabilities or special needs, and it’s one of the coolest things I have ever had the privilege of being a part of.
Now that is not to say that I am an expert in this area at all. In fact, part of the reason I chose to write about this is because if you are like me, you may find yourself ill-equipped to handle this type of program. I know I am not trained well in this area, but I have been striving to learn and grow.
My desire today is simply to provide you with some ideas and advice, as well as point you to some resources to help you grow personally and minister to people in your church and community who are often forgotten about and marginalized. The more we work at making our ministries and churches accessible to everyone, the more likelihood there is of reaching people for the kingdom of heaven.
Get to know your people.
This is the best place to start. If you notice that there are students with special needs or families who have students with special needs, go and talk to them. Reach out and connect. Get to know them. Encourage them and let them know that they are welcomed, valued, and loved. People and families with special needs individuals often feel forgotten and ostracized because of the differences that exist. By reaching out to them and caring for them, you are creating a place of refuge and love. So ask questions. Listen well. Get to know them. Hear their stories and tensions they have. Then use what you learn to help create a place where their student(s) can come, participate, be loved, and know more about Jesus.
Equip and keep your team in the know.
If you have volunteers it is key to help them know and understand that there are students who have special needs. You don’t need to go into all the personal details for each student, but allowing your team to know that you do have students with special needs better prepares them to engage in different ways. It also helpful to share with your team different methods for calming students down, helping them engage, and how to communicate with them. Much of this information can be gleaned from parents and that goes back to our first point about getting to know the individuals and their families. This better equips you and your team to care for and minister to them. Also consider bringing in people to help train your team or giving them additional resources. Reaching out to local schools and organizations will provide you with a wealth of knowledge and allow you to consider bringing someone in to train your team.
No two people are ever the same.
This is a really key thing to remember. When you meet a student who has special needs, you have only met one student with special needs. No two people are exactly alike. No two situations (even with the same individual) will be exactly the same. No response will ever work the same for two different people. Each of these individuals is just that: an individual. Someone crafted in the image of God who longs to be loved and to belong. And our role is to care for them as an individual, to see them as God does, and to not assume things about them.
Make your place safe and welcoming.
Over the past few years I have come to realize how important space, lighting, sound, and programming is to people who have special needs. If you have students with autism, find out how lights, sounds, games, scheduling or lack thereof affect them. I found out that to many harsh lights or loud noises cause over-stimulation and that in turn makes the students and their families not want to participate. Another thing that people don’t always realize is that scheduling is huge for some people who have special needs. Having a system, a flow, structure, or a schedule helps them and their families prepare. So even if you could simply send a note to families a day or so ahead of time explaining the event and its schedule, you will make your program all the more inviting.
Another great thing to evaluate is this: is your venue handicap accessible? A great way of discerning this is by asking if people in a wheel chair can access and participate in all aspects of your program. If they cannot, it isn’t hard to believe that people with other special needs can most likely not participate as well. You are measuring whether or not your program is open and welcoming to all.
Purchase some sensory equipment.
This was one of the best things I have done for our ministry in a long time. You can literally find hundreds of options on Amazon simply by searching “fidget toys box,” and you can find ones that fit your ministry context best. This is a really good option that can be used in a variety of contexts. Putting sensory items out in your rooms or area of ministry affords students a new way to engage. It gives them something to play with which in turn allows them to focus. It helps students with anxiety to relieve some of their anxiousness. It gives people something to engage with. I would highly recommend getting some of these for everyone in student ministry.
Utilize resources and seek to grow your own knowledge.
There are some really good resources out there and some really not good resources when it comes to this topic and ministering to people with special needs. During my time in ministry I have found two really helpful resources that I want to share with you. Dr. Lamar Hardwick is a phenomenal resource I just recently came upon after hearing him speak on a podcast. His book is a great resource that I would highly recommend as he offers great insight and perspective as he himself falls into the category of special needs.
Another fantastic resource is Ability Ministry. They have helpful articles, resources, and curriculum designed for ministering to people with special needs. This has been revolutionary in helping our team minister to our students with special needs and we have seen amazing results. Our students who struggled to connect to the Bible our now memorizing it, they are serving as greeters on Sunday mornings, and actively participating in the program. I would highly suggest utilizing both of these resources and reading up on how you can better minister to, serve, and love your people who have special needs.