Faith Communities and Disability


Reverend BILL GAVENTA (Boggs Center on Developmental Disabilities): In every faith community there is a scriptural basis for welcome and hospitality. But you’ve also got congregations who live in cultures where people with disabilities have been hidden and ostracized and devalued in lots of ways, and too often faith communities sanctify prejudices in the community rather than challenge them. It shouldn’t be easier to get into a bar than a church.

SAFIYYAH A. MUHAMMAD: When I think back as a child, I don’t remember seeing anyone like Sufyaan at the mosque, no one. I don’t remember any children or adults like Sufyaan attending the mosque, and I don’t think that was by mistake. I think that we parents look at it as not just a distraction but an embarrassment. But he deserves to pray. He has a right to faith, too.

Well, the first time that Sufyaan attended the mosque not only was he talking out loud and using his hand motions, but he was running in and out of the rows. It wasn’t received well. There were whispers, there were talk: “He’s a bad kid. He obviously wasn’t raised right. That’s bad parenting.”

Imam W. Deen ShareefImam W. DEEN SHAREEF (Masjid Waarith Ud Deen, Irvington, NJ): I think the primary challenge is a lack of knowledge, because sometimes families conceal the information that they have family members that have disabilities. Sister Safiyyah Muhammad made us aware of her son’s disability in terms of autism, and she’s made it almost like a quest for our community to become more knowledgeable about it.

SAFIYYAH: When the Koran refers to the believers it doesn’t say the believers except for the insane. Love for your brother what you want for yourself, and Sufyaan, autism or not, is considered a brother to another person who does not have autism.

Rev. GAVENTA: I’ve had families say to me, “I’ve fought all week to get my kid included in a school or whatever. I shouldn’t—I don’t want to have to fight when it comes to Sunday morning or Saturday.”

CYNTHIA MCCURDY (to her children): Are you guys ready to go?

In other families that I’ve talked to there’s been numerous instances of “We don’t know what to do with your kind” or “Please don’t come back.”

(to daughter Katie): Okay, that looks good.

FEMALE VOICE AT CHURCH: Katie’s going to definitely do the sign language.

KATIE: Hello.

WOMAN: You look nice in your white top.

KATIE: Why thank you.

BOY: How you been?

CYNTHIA: We noticed that people with disabilities were missing from communities of faith. It wasn’t that people with disabilities didn’t exist. They just weren’t being invited and welcomed into their houses of worship.

KATIE: I carry the banners that like, kind of like a spirit does too. And the Gospel, I have to read the Gospel. I have to study for it. Then we read the Gospel.

Pastor MARK SINGH-HUETER (St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, Exton, PA, addressing congregation): We begin in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. Dear Lord, forgive the things I have done…

Everything’s presented in a way that really is much more interactive, whether they’re in the choir, whether they’re part of the skit, whether they’re doing readings, and so everybody gets to use their gifts and get involved.

BILLY: I’m reaching up to the Lord because of my voice. I can sing unto his praise.

SUSAN: Frankly, I would not feel comfortable just walking into any church for a service because of the noisiness, and we usually make some kind of a scene—like we are right now, pulling hair—where here, you know, we really don’t have to worry about it. A lot of times when we’re out in public, Joshua does experience a lot of stares when we go into restaurants and things. So we find that we really don’t go to a lot of the public places. This is wonderful, because not only does he get time to come and be exposed to worship, but I get to come back to church, too.

CYNTHIA: When I see individuals of all abilities feeling free to be themselves and to worship as God has intended them to be, I feel the Holy Spirit moving within everyone.

Rev. GAVENTA: Faith communities have gone from doing nothing to doing special things for people, with this sort of special services for special people and special religious education, to then hearing families and others say don’t do anything special for us. Just include us.

Rabbi DAN GROSSMAN (Adath Israel Congregation, Lawrenceville, NJ): Several families moved to this community because we make it an inclusive community. I don’t want a synagogue that doesn’t let Jews in. Isaac was blind—in most synagogues he couldn’t find his way around. Moses stuttered—in most synagogues he couldn’t read from the Torah that’s called the Books of Moses. So you got to create the environment where everybody has a place, and if you start with that notion, then everything flows from there.

SAM’S MOTHER: We were at a different synagogue. Sam’s autism, you know, outbursts occasionally, was really not tolerated. So we came here. Immediately the whole synagogue accepted us. He learned Hebrew and loves to be on the bema.

Rabbi GROSSMAN (signing): So when I come back in the summer, in August, we can study together? Alright. You’re a good guy.

BOY AT SYNAGOGUE: Not many deaf people read the Torah. My dad always said to me I am better reading in Hebrew than English.

Rabbi GROSSMAN: We have a reputation that we are a special needs community, when in fact that probably only makes up a small percentage of the active community in the synagogue. I think it defines the synagogue because it simply doesn’t happen elsewhere.

WOMAN: I happen to be married to a gentleman who’s a quadriplegic and in a power wheel chair. There’s lots of ways of creating access to the bema. But what’s really special to him is that everyone uses the ramp. That’s the first time he’s felt—when he’s been in a synagogue, accessible or not—where he’s felt there’s true inclusion.

Rabbi GROSSMAN: There are seats that can accommodate wheelchairs in a row, so you’re not stuck in an aisle separate from everybody else. There are large print prayer books, Braille prayer books. Most synagogues have Torahs usually higher; you have to lean forward into it. By having them free-hanging like this anyone can roll up literally in a wheelchair, take the Torah, lift it, and come out with it.

FATHER: What would happen to these kids if a synagogue like this wasn’t around?

Rev. GAVENTA: If everybody is created in the image of God our community should be a reflection of the diversity and the wonder of God’s creation.

Rabbi GROSSMAN: I’ve had so many people over the years say it feels like they’re part of a real, living community as opposed to an artificial community where only perfect people are sitting here.

SAFIYYAH: Some people would say what is he getting out of it? Why is he here? He’s a distraction. We need prayer more than he does.

But the fact is who’s to determine who gets more blessings and who doesn’t?

  • c gibert

    I wish there were more places like the Israel Congregation for people in different comuunities to attend. I often stay home when I am feeling low due to the amount of stairs I have to climb just to get into my church.

    P. S. I have a genetic blood disorder, which is very painful at times. I just think my congregation does not have funds to remodel our church. We have lost a lot of elderly members, and other members with disabilities due to the stairs, and the issue with parking around the church. We once had an autistic young man in our church and he was nurtured by the Sunday School teachers until he was a young adult –he has since moved away from our area.

  • F soriano

    As a certificated teacher of the handicapped who worked with the full range of disabilities, I applaud the efforts of religious congregations to meet the needs of disabled congregants. The program showed the extremes of the mentally disabled, who are the real challenge. Downs citizens our more than able to engage in worship but the autistic and the psychotic are problematic and the final comment of the program recognizes this. How do we assess who is capable of religious comprehension? A parent’s hopes are not enough unless they can provide evidence. If integrated in the congregation on the whole, some who were profiled would innocently disrupt the service. Perhaps for them, the Childrens Room found in many churches is a compromise. Should we eliminate those rooms them because they discriminate against infants and toddlers?

  • Joan Walsh

    The program was wonderful. I would underline Bill Gaventa’s comment that people with disabilities be included in regular services as opposed to having special services just for them.
    Why in your list of groups to contact was there no mention of any Roman Catholic sources? My own diocese of Newark, NJ has a special office for people with disabilities. Much work has been done.My daughter, who has a son with autism, has worked with the archdiocese, has worked to have her son receive his First Communion and has co-edited a book with Bill Gaventa to help congregations to welcome people with disabilities.Your lack of mention of Catholic sources implies that there aren’t any.

  • frank soriano

    There is no arguing that houses of worship should be physiccally accessible to all worshippers. The next problem is how to integrate those whose behavior, through no fault of their own, disrupts the services. A non-disbled worshipper (child or adult) who disrupts a service would and should be removed, the latter to the enclosed children’s room if available. The same standard should be applied to the mentally disabled. Also just as children leave some services at the scripture readings and sermons for an age appropriate presentation and then return, the same should be done for the disbled if necessary.

  • Eileen Sabel

    If Iand,does hevan have a ramp?? hear”god will heal your broken body” ONCE MORE….GRRR..I’M NOT BROKEN!!or how I must’ve “sinned” EXASCSE ME?!and does hevan have a ramp?or is god bigited too??!

  • MB Walsh

    Great story! It would be nice to include some Catholic resources as well. Take a look at the following:
    National Catholic Partnership on Disability:
    Diocese of Pittsburgh:
    Diocese of Newark:

  • William White

    I have not run into a problem with any of the churches I have attended. Even as part of the volunteer staff on a few of the churches we made sure that all felt welcomed. No matter what the disablity is we welcome them. I have in the past be attending Four Square Churches and now I attend Spring Lake United Methodist Church. I can’t speak for the other churches in your report.

  • jacquelyn

    thank you, as a mother of a 38 yr old down’s syndrome son and a minister, i have not always
    found welcoming situations but as time progresses and people are more exposed to differntly abled
    people, I pray that things will get better.
    all challenges are not the same just as all people
    are not the same; right now i am recovering from
    knee replacement surger and in my own church i will not be able to attend because i cannot climb
    the many stairs,. awareness is the first step, helping families not to feel alienated is another
    being patient with one another, learning to think
    and respond outside of tradition, is that not what
    Jesus, Moses and The Prophet all did.

  • Safiyyah Amina Muhammad

    I am SO humbled beyond words to have been a part of this endeavor, a prat of this message to mankind that there is something greater than our desire to appear perfect; OUR PURPOSE.
    Thank you to everyone that had the confidence, the faith in my family to participate. You are greatly appreciated. Thank you to Sufyaan for reminding me of the importance of unconditional love. You are our blessing.

  • Abdul Latif Coleman

    There is a hadith related to children in the Masjid, basically it says we should be not only tolerate, but happy to see them there. As for people with impairments; they are human beings and should be treated as such. In fact perhaps our encounters with those who are diferent are but a test from Allah(God)

  • Bill Gaventa

    Thanks for includkng this n the newsletter. Ilana Trachtman did a wonderful job with the documentary, Praying with Lior, and this related video. There is also a great hour long video done by Diva Productions that was shown on ABC in December called A Place for All G-d’s People, I believe.

    There are more and more regional interfaith networks around the country working to assist congregations. They include ones in Atlanta, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Norfollk, VA. These and others are adding to the work done by many fnational faith groups . The DD Council in PA has funded a three year project on Faith Community Leadership, and other DD Councils have supported inclusive initiatives. There are two excellent nationa Catholic organizations, national, the National Catholic Partnership on Disability and the National Apostolate for Inclusive Ministries.

    On our Boggs Center website, there is 160 pp. resource book for congregations called Dimenstions of Faith, which has a section lising many oft the groups and organizations working in this area of ministry and advocacy.
    It also has the interfaith booklet on autism noted above, and a booklet on congregations and brain injury. The first was funded by COSAC, the autism network in New Jersey, and the Brain Injury Association of New Jersey, respectively.

    There are also several new excellent theological books on disability, listed in Dimenstions of Faith, including Amos Yong’s Theology and Down Syndrome, Re-imagiing Disability in Modernity, Hans Rreinders with a book on profoiund disability, friendship, and theology, Eric Carter’s from Brookes Publishing, and Tom Reynolds book entitled Vulnerable Communion.

    And there are a number of regional and national conferences happening, including ones September 24-25 in St. Louis sponsored by the United Church of Christ, and one by an organization called Peaceful Living just north of Philadelphia.

  • Alan Johnson

    This is a very good newsletter. As a cofounder of the Interfaith Network on Mental Illness in Boulder, CO, I, too, am interested in networks where congregations are finding practical ways to be inclusive of persons who are living with an apparent or an unapparent disabilty or a mental illness/brain disorder.

    The national conference that Bill Gaventa mentioned in his recent response is “Widening the Welcome: Inclusion of All.” Go to to learn more. The Conference is in St. Louis, Sept. 23-25, 2010, that is this month! National speakers and very helpful workshops.

    Our congregation has voted an Accessible to All Covenant, generated by the United Church of Christ. If you want to see it go to our website,


    Alan Johnson

  • Jeromy Mehner

    I feel very priveledged that this is up on the ‘net and I’m sure glad to have found this place. Have a wonderful weekender.

  • Nieves Bohney

    What a powerfull video! I sure would ike our church to get a copy to share with members. I once was a care receiver ,my SM was a real blessing to me.I have just started to study to be a SM at First United Methodist Church in Crestview,Florida. I want to be able to better serve the needy and homeless in our area. It is a strongconnection to hurting people at the soup kitchens, food banks and clothing ministry.God is guiding me in this wonderful program to help his lambs. God Bless All.