The task of ministry is inviting everyone to the table to experience the good news of the Gospel and God’s grace. It is critical to uphold the invitation to everyone when we are working with a student with a disability or a particular need. But how do we prepare our ministries to support students with different needs? How do we create space for students with special needs? We must build relationships, examine barriers, be flexible, and build a village around these youth.
(It is important to note that for this article, I am using the term “special needs” to cover a wide range of different disabilities, cognitive and/or physical impairments, and participation limitations based on an individual’s body. This includes students who are on the autism spectrum as well as those with dyslexia, ADHD, etc.)
First and foremost, we, as youth ministers, have to develop relationships with special needs individuals to get to know who they are. When I worked at a special needs camp, I learned that getting to know a student was the key to making sure they had a successful day at camp. For example, I made sure I knew what helped bring a student joy, in case I needed to calm their anxiety in a tense moment. Developing a good relationship with the parent/guardian will also give you better insight about their child and how you can create a functional space for them in your ministry. Through your relationship with the youth and/or their parents, work to learn the answers to the following questions:
-What interests them?
-How do they become overstimulated/anxious?
-What are their struggles living with their particular disability/special need?
-What is needed for them to relax/unwind?
-Who do they like to be around?
Remember, when you meet someone with a disability, you are merely meeting one human person who has a disability. Special needs individuals exist across the spectrum of intelligence, physical activity, and cognitive awareness. We must be the ones who are willing to see how God is in them.
Once we get to know our youth with special needs and their particular struggles, we must evaluate the barriers to entry the ministry program presents and find compromises to promote inclusion for all. My first lock-in to welcome incoming sixth graders reminds me of this principle. A girl named Amy joined us for the event. She was your typical sixth grade girl who was nervous and excited about the event, and she just happened to have a cochlear implant to help her hear. After an evening of watching “Napoleon Dynamite” and eating tater tots, Amy left the lock-in before 10 o’clock very upset, and no one knew why. After talking with other staff, it dawned on me that we did not turn the subtitles on for the movie! The lack of subtitles and the chatter of the other youth probably made this a hard experience filled with some anxiety because she could not understand the movie along with everyone else. While we cannot renovate the entire event for one student, we can make strides to make the ministry space inviting for them. Turning on subtitles for a movie is a small and thoughtful step toward creating an inclusive space for a student like Amy. Sadly, since that lock-in Amy has not come back to my church to experience what the community of faith and Jesus has to offer her.
After barriers to ministry are identified and minimized, we, as a ministry, have to create a flexible roadmap for what success is going to look like for a student with special needs. Every youth ministry has a list of developmental milestones for students to accomplish as they move through their years in youth group. However, our special needs friends might not be able to fully meet those developmental milestones because of how their disability affects them. Work with the student’s parents, and, possibly, the student to create these flexible milestones. It is essential that the milestones are crystal clear with all parties, can be practiced over a long period, and are trackable to growth toward a goal.
When milestone are met, we must celebrate them! Many students with special needs often feel left out when others are hitting big milestones like getting their driver license, graduating high school, or going to college. While the milestones of a special needs student may not feel the same as the standard ones we are accustomed to celebrating, we can indeed find ways to celebrate the unique ways they are succeeding today. You might also consider inviting them to participate in the celebration of others’ milestones like graduation celebrations and find some ways to honor them sincerely.
The most critical component of successfully ministering to students with special needs is building their village of helpers. All youth need adults who will be there for them on their journey of faith. But youth with special needs especially need consistency in their team of mentors on their walk of life and faith. Seek adults who will be patient, stern, and observant. Some might be fearful or hesitant to working with this population of youth for a variety of reasons, but your job, as the youth minister, is to equip those who are willing to do this work.
As youth leaders, we must also help our other students see the importance of welcoming and helping those who have special needs. This expectation of our students must be integrated with the foundation of the vision of the ministry. There is a challenge in that many students will not see those with special needs as their peers–in many schools, typically developing youth do not engage with special needs students during the school day. But our job as ministers is to teach all students to be the community of faith to those who are not like them. One way to do this well is to help our students understand how God has made special needs people in the image of God and how God is connected to them through the humanity of Jesus.
The work of special needs ministry is not always easily navigable in the realm of youth group. Working with special needs youth may feel a bit like looking for the lost sheep and celebrating when they are returned to the other 99. Maybe you are filled with doubt because special needs ministry is such a big task to take on. You are wise enough to know that this task will require you to try and to sometimes fail. But if you don’t try, you won’t have the chance to see the grace of God is working in the lives of special needs adolescents and to see how the kingdom of God has manifested on earth.