Editor’s Note: This article was inspired by John Nixdor’s article on youthspecialties.com, “Ministering to Teenagers with Disabilities: Part 1 and Part 2.”
by Rev. Phil Rogers
Click here to read Honoring Their Unique Gifts and Talents: Ministering to Teens with Disabilities, Part 1.
Inclusion Isn’t Just an Option; It’s Everything!
Nixdor says that “while you can’t plan your entire program around one student, give the student some consideration and occasionally plan activities in which he can be involved. If you have a visually impaired student, provide materials that are readable. If you have a wheelchair-bound student, keep the junk off the floor, do your best to make your youth room accessible, and select accessible venues for events.” He doesn’t take his claim far enough. EVERY activity you do should include all of your students. If a student can’t expose herself to the cold temperatures, you should probably avoid an activity that is outside on a cold winter day. Likewise for hot summer days and students who have sensitivity to sunlight or heat. This is not to say that if a student uses a wheelchair you cannot play kickball with your youth group. Rather, adapt the game to fit the abilities of all of your students collectively so as not to exclude anyone. Having another student kick the ball or run to first base for the student who uses a wheelchair doesn’t diminish the original intent of the activity and it gives the youth with a disability an opportunity to participate in a way that celebrates her skills and talents.
Here are a few other suggestions for inclusion of teenagers with disabilities. This is not an exhaustive list by any means. Be creative and always seek to involve everyone to the greatest degree that you can while still maintaining the integrity and intent of the activity: change only what you need to in order to help someone participate:
-If an activity involves sitting in a circle, note the ways in which a teenager with sensory integration disabilities can participate while sitting away from the group.
-Can the game be adapted to be a little quieter? How about the lighting? Is it too bright or too dark?
-If you have someone with a visual impairment in your ministry, try using either bigger, brighter objects or perhaps objects that make noise.
-If a teenager comes to your ministry with a hearing impairment, consider using sound amplification when giving directions.
-Consider how much incline and decline (hills) will be involved in an activity.
-Can you limit the hills by using a different route?
-Inform the teenager ahead of time of the hills that will be encountered and offer (do not insist on) assistance if needed to navigate the hills.
-Grouping youth together on teams and encouraging them to all work together is helpful.
-Ensure everyone has a part on their team.
-When necessary, consider using hand-over-hand assistance to participate and allow as much independence for the student as possible in participating. For example, if an activity involves writing, guide the student, using your hands on top of their hands, to hold the pencil and allow them as much freedom to guide the pencil as they are capable of doing.
-Research and employ assistive technology where necessary and possible.
-There are many grants available for purchasing this sort of equipment, and a little creativity can go a long way in making homemade adaptive devices.
Whenever you are using adaptations for any activity, always consider what each student is capable of doing and focus on that rather than getting stuck on what he or she cannot do: do not adapt an activity that needs no adaptation.
The general rule when offering assistance to people who have disabilities is to ask if they need any assistance. If they refuse your assistance, do not feel insulted or become defensive. A good way to navigate this is to ask ahead of time the sort of assistance that your teenager will need. This will require you to think ahead as much as you possible about the sorts of activities and environments you will encounter in youth group. Offer breaks when someone looks like they are fatigued or frustrated.
Modeling Appropriate Behavior is Key for Everyone
You, as an adult leader, are in charge of your group’s overall well-being. It is your responsibility to do everything in your power to ensure that everyone in your group (students, both with and without disabilities, and adult volunteers and staff) feels welcome, accepted, celebrated, loved, and safe. By welcoming each student to the ministry in a loving and caring way, you model how others should welcome each other. Just as God has welcomed each of us to participate fully in God’s actions, we should be welcoming our brothers and sisters in Christ to participate fully in our church communities.
-A student with a disability may be nervous to join her group for fear of not fitting in with her peers. Help alleviate any stress she has by welcoming her warmly.
-A student with a disability might not have proper boundaries set in place at home. Help to model these boundaries for the student with disabilities and set expectations for proper behavior at the beginning of an activity. Reminders and encouragement may be necessary. Hold students responsible for their behavior and set appropriate consequences for not following through. Be as understanding and fair (but firm) as you can when using discipline.
-A student who does not have a disability may be unsure of how to best interact with a peer who has a disability. Help model a respectful interaction with all students. Praise (in private) appropriate interactions of students without disabilities interacting with students who have disabilities. Do not make a big deal of it but recognize their efforts.
-Help adult leaders who are anxious about interacting with students who have disabilities by modeling the ease with which it is done. Remember that a teenager is not a child or a baby so do not talk to them like they are one.
-Do not assume that someone with a disability does not understand you–that is, speak at a normal cadence, tone, and volume as if you were talking to any adult. When necessary, offer instructions in a step-by-step manner.
-When speaking to a teen who uses a wheelchair, either stand upright or sit in a chair next to him, rather than kneeling. It’s not so important to be at eye level as it is to make eye contact from any height.
-Insist that all people in your ministry be treated with dignity, respect, and fairness. Do not tolerate unjust teasing among students or adults. Try not to be punitive in you consequences but offer grace, forgiveness and opportunities to learn from mistakes. Help all students to practice empathetic listening to each other.
Ministering to the Angry Students as well as Adult Caregivers
In part 2 of his article, Nixdor seems to imply that most teenagers with disabilities are emotionally unstable beings, incapable of reconciling their personal struggles with their disability. While there certainly are teenagers who do struggle with accepting their disability, to generalize is unfair. Not every single teenager will struggle in the same way. Likewise, not all teens with disabilities will be angry and struggle to accept their disability. Many teenagers with disabilities are already well-adjusted to their situation and fully accept it for themselves. Others do not.
Teenagers in general are struggling to understand who they are and why they are in this world, and this tension can certainly be compounded by having a disability. It can be difficult for a teenager to navigate social structures with their peers, particularly if they aren’t readily able to participate in an activity that the rest of their peers are involved in. Teenagers are experiencing puberty and the changes that come along with it, which can be a challenge for teenagers with disabilities. They may be confused about what is happening with their body and perhaps even embarrassed. Teens often seek more privacy at this stage in life and yet teenagers with disabilities often need personal care assistance. This necessity can be a source of anger and/or embarrassment for them.
In times where there is anger, the best thing to do is to offer a listening ear. Note that there are appropriate ways to express anger and it is your responsibility to ensure the safety of everyone in the ministry. Set boundaries for expressing anger in a way that does not harm other people. It can be a good place for teenagers who have disabilities to express their anger in front of their peers and to navigate their faith with them. However, it may be more appropriate to help the teen to navigate these feelings in a private environment. This need can be determined on a case-by-case basis.
Offering Pastoral Care for the Teen and the Family
You can offer a safe space to the teenager when he or she is frustrated about life or questioning his or her place in the world. Don’t be afraid to explore the questions that your teenager has. Assure your teenagers with disabilities that, “We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28). While we do not know why people have disabilities, we are confident that God can use everyone’s gifts and talents to participate in the action of God in the world.
Quite like the teenager with a disability, you can also serve as an outlet for adults in the lives of the teen. Being present and listening well to the adults as they express their fears, failures, frustrations (and joys!) is a gift that cannot be replaced. Offer the safe space for parents to vent to you. The trust you will gain in them with their teenager is incomparable. You don’t need to have the answers, you merely need to be willing to lend a listening ear and a caring heart.
The greatest gift you can offer someone who is hurting to pray with and for them. Hear their hurts and then offer to pray with them. Pray that God lift will lift them out of their hurt and bring them to a fuller peace and understanding of their personal situation. Ask that God become clearly evident in the midst of their lives and help them discover where God is inviting them to participate in the action of God in the world. Before you part ways with them, let them know that you will continue to pray for God’s guidance and comfort for them…and then do it!
Rev. Phil Rogers is an alumnus of the Center for Youth Ministry Training. He serves as the Pastor of Youth & Young Adult Ministries at Long Peak United Methodist Church in Longmont, CO.