Congregations learn to embrace disabled members

Diverse religious traditions share a common imperative to care for the needy and marginalized, yet when it comes to people with disabilities — even in their own community — congregations have often struggled to adapt and be welcoming.

Awareness of the issue is growing, however, and some religious communities are making strides toward greater inclusion of people with disabilities, both mental and physical.

But the challenges continue, and they are changing. For example:

  • The growth of autism and related disorders in young families has prompted religious groups to respond in innovative ways.
  • The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have resulted in thousands of young disabled veterans who are returning to their communities — and their congregations.
  • Many congregations with aging members are facing the need to adapt worship services and religious education for people whose vision, hearing or mobility are declining, or who are struggling with dementia.
  • Many congregations are housed in older buildings that require extensive retrofitting to accommodate disabled people; that can cost money and can run afoul of landmark and zoning ordinances.

At the same time, people with disabilities have grown more visible and vocal about their place in all sectors of society.

In the religious context, “disability theology” has flourished as a framework for both disabled and religious communities to talk about inclusion.

While the landmark 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act provides certain exemptions for religious institutions, many faith communities have heeded a moral mandate to welcome all. Those who haven’t face questions from a more empowered community of people with disabilities.

A 2010 survey commissioned by the Kessler Foundation and the National Organization on Disability found that 50 percent of Americans with disabilities attend religious services at least once per month, compared with 57 percent of those without disabilities.

This edition of ReligionLink provides resources and experts for reporters who are writing about this issue of growing concern.

Why it matters

Disability is not rare. According to the National Organization on Disability, more than one in six Americans — 56 million — have disabilities. Faith groups are a natural source of support in these situations, offering both spiritual and social resources. Yet while some congregations excel at inclusion and ministering, others struggle or fall short.

Angles for reporters

  • How this plays out in your community depends on what kinds of religious communities you have and who they are serving. Look for congregations with young families, graying congregations or congregations in areas where many serve in the military.
  • This issue intersects with cutting-edge considerations in medical ethics. If someone is profoundly intellectually disabled — for example, with Alzheimer’s or autism — in what ways can clergy and faith communities relate to them and their families? What do clergy who deal with people in nursing care facilities say?
  • People with disabilities or their families may have stories to tell about difficulties or rejection in their attempts to participate in congregational life. Others’ experiences may have been profoundly positive. How do they see congregations’ attempts to become more inclusive?
  • Autism spectrum disorders, which affect an individual’s ability to communicate and interact with others, are a growing topic of discussion because the number of children receiving this diagnosis has increased. According to statistics from the federal Centers for Disease Control, 1 in 68 children has an autism spectrum disorder. What is the experience of congregations and religious schools with these children? Are seminaries embracing teaching about disabilities and students with disabilities?
  • Accommodating people with disabilities is more than a matter of modifying buildings. “Disability theology” is a specialty of theologians with particular interest in the special application of God’s word for people with disabilities. Is it taught in local seminaries and universities?


Articles, blog posts and other media

National sources

  • Judith Abrams

    Rabbi Judith Abrams of Houston co-edited Jewish Perspectives on Theology and the Human Experience of Disability.

  • Erik Carter

    Erik Carter is the author of Including People With Disabilities in Faith Communities: A Guide for Service Providers, Families & Congregations and an associate professor of special education at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn.

  • Bill Gaventa

    Bill Gaventa is associate professor of pediatrics at the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey and director of community and congregational supports at the Elizabeth M. Boggs Center on Developmental Disabilities in New Brunswick, N.J. Gaventa served 14 years as editor of the Journal of Religion, Disability & Health and is now associate editor of the journal Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities.

  • Stanley M. Hauerwas

    Stanley M. Hauerwas is Gilbert T. Rowe Professor Emeritus of Divinity and Law at Duke Divinity School in Durham, N.C. He wrote “Why Abortion Is a Religious Issue” for the book The Church and Abortion: In Search of New Ground for Response.

    He says that people with disabilities challenge our basic assumptions and that Christians cannot afford to discount in any way the value of the lives of people with disabilities. He and Jean Vanier, founder of the L’Arche communities, explored these ideas in their 2008 book, Living Gently in a Violent World: The Prophetic Witness of Weakness.

  • Jeff McNair

    Jeff McNair is professor of education at California Baptist University in Riverside. He directs the Center for the Study of Religion and Disability and maintains the blog Disabled Christianity.

  • Christopher R. Smit

    Christopher R. Smit teaches mass media, including television, gender and sexuality, and popular music at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich. Smit’s essays on disability, media, popular music and culture have appeared in Disability Studies QuarterlyStudies in Popular Culture and elsewhere. His current book project concerns theology, disability and the Christian faith. He is also a singer/songwriter.

  • Ginny Thornburgh

    Ginny Thornburgh is director of the Interfaith Initiative at the American Association of People with Disabilities, where she works to help the disabled and their families gain access to spiritual and religious resources. She previously served for many years as director of the National Organization on Disability’s Religion and Disability Program. Thornburgh is co-author and editor of the award-winning book That All May Worship: An Interfaith Welcome to People With Disabilities, and she also edited Loving Justice: The ADA and the Religious Community.

    Contact: 202-457-0046.

International sources

  • Pamela Cushing

    Pamela Cushing is a cultural anthropologist who teaches sociology at King’s University College at the University of Western Ontario. She has studied the L’Arche community, which provides homes for people with intellectual disabilities. She has also written about caregiving, researched social inclusion of people with disabilities and studied the growth of disabilities studies programs in the English-speaking world.

  • Tony Phelps-Jones

    Tony Phelps-Jones is director of ministry for Prospects, which helps churches in the United Kingdom provide “effective ministry and outreach among people dearly loved by God and often marginalised by society.” The organization focuses on those with learning disabilities.

  • Xavier Le Pichon

    Xavier Le Pichon is a professor of geodynamics at the Collège de France in Aix-en-Provence. Internationally known for his work on plate tectonics, he founded with his wife the Thomas Philippe House (La Maison Thomas Philippe), a facility in southern France for families of people with intellectual disabilities. The house is named after the Rev. Thomas Philippe, mentor of Jean Vanier, who founded L’Arche, an organization for the developmentally disabled. Le Pichon co-chaired a 2007 interdisciplinary conference, “Learning From the Disabled,” that explored what people who have disabilities can teach those who are not impaired.

  • Johannes S. Reinders

    Johannes S. “Hans” Reinders is the Bernard Lievegoed Professor of Ethics and Mental Disability at the Free University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands. He co-chaired a 2007 interdisciplinary conference, “Learning From the Disabled,” that explored what people who have disabilities can teach those who are not impaired. His publications include The Future of the Disabled in Liberal Society. 

  • Thomas E. Reynolds

    Thomas E. Reynolds is an associate professor of theology at Emmanuel College in Toronto, Canada. He has a son with multiple disabilities and is the author of Vulnerable Communion: A Theology of Disability and Hospitality.

  • John Swinton

    John Swinton is a nurse, ordained minister and theologian who teaches at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland. He has written extensively on the theology of disability; his publications include Theology, Disability and the New Genetics: Why Science Needs the Church (as co-editor) and the article “The Body of Christ Has Down’s Syndrome: Theological Reflections on Disability, Vulnerability and Graceful Communities.” He was co-organizer of the 2007 inaugural conference of the European Society for the Study of Disability and Theology.

  • Gordon Temple

    Gordon Temple is chief executive of Torch Trust, a British-based organization that works to bring Christ to the visually impaired. Among other things, Temple can discuss how people experiencing sudden disability go through a grief process, and how churches and ministries can help with that.



  • Autism Society

    The Autism Society, the oldest autism advocacy organization in the U.S., has a nationwide network of affiliates. They sponsor conferences and training and offer resources.

  • Autism Speaks

    Autism Speaks is a national advocacy organization founded in 2005 by Bob Wright, former chief executive officer of NBC, and his wife, Suzanne. They have a grandson with autism. Contact CJ Volpe, Chief of Media Strategy.

  • Brain Injury Association of America

    The Brain Injury Association of America in Vienna, Va., is the clearinghouse for information about traumatic brain injury. According to its 2012 annual report, 2.5 million Americans a year experience a traumatic brain injury or stroke.

  • Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center

    The Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center is the federal clearinghouse for treatment and research of traumatic brain injury suffered by military personnel. The center posts data about the incidence of TBI; as of mid-2013, more than 280,000 U.S. military personnel had suffered such an injury since 2000. Contact through the website.

    Contact: 800-870-9244.
  • Easter Seals

    The Easter Seals organization provides services, outreach and advocacy for people with autism, wounded veterans and others with disabilities. The nonprofit, which is more than 90 years old, is based in Chicago and has no religious affiliation.

    Contact: 800-221-6827.
  • National Center on Disability and Journalism

    The National Center on Disability and Journalism provides guidance to reporters on disabilities coverage. It’s based at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University. Jake Geller is coordinator.

  • National Organization on Disability

    The National Organization on Disability promotes full accessibility in all aspects of life for those with disabilities. The nonprofit group is based in New York City. Kaitlin Bitting handles media inquiries.

Disability ministries/ information centers

Regional sources

In the Northeast

  • Deborah B. Creamer

    Deborah B. Creamer is director of accreditation and institutional evaluation at the Association of Theological Schools in Pittsburgh. She is the author of Disability and Christian Theology: Embodied Limits and Constructive Possibilities. Creamer is a former co-chair of the Religion and Disability Studies Group for the American Academy of Religion.

  • Roger Gottlieb

    Roger Gottlieb is a philosophy professor at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Worcester, Mass. Disability is among his wide area of interests; he has served on the steering committee of the American Academy of Religion’s Religion and Disabilities Study Group, and his book Joining Hands: Politics and Religion Together for Social Change includes a section about one of his daughters, who has several disabilities. Gottlieb has also written several books on religion and the environment, including A Greener Faith: Religious Environmentalism and Our Planet’s Future, and he edited Oxford Handbook of Religion and Ecology.

  • Marilyn A. Martone

    Marilyn A. Martone is a retired associate professor of theology and religious studies at St. John’s University in New York, where her research and teaching focused on the distribution of health resources and issues of rehabilitation of brain-trauma victims. After Martone’s adult daughter suffered a serious brain injury in a car accident, Martone wrote a book, Over the Waterfall, about the family’s experience in dealing with that.

    Contact: 718-990-5423.
  • Jennifer Pader

    The Rev. Jennifer Pader is a disability rights advocate and affiliated minister for pastoral care at Fourth Universalist Society in New York.

  • Ora Horn Prouser

    Ora Horn Prouser is executive vice president and academic dean at the Academy for Jewish Religion, a pluralistic rabbinical and cantorial school in Yonkers, N.Y. She is the author of Esau’s Blessing: How the Bible Embraces Those With Special Needs.

  • Dr. Christina Puchalski

    Dr. Christina Puchalski is director of the George Washington Institute for Spirituality & Health at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., which develops educational, clinical and research programs for physicians and other health-care professionals on the role of spirituality and health in medicine. A professor of medicine and health sciences at GWU’s School of Medicine, and a member of the Secular Order of Discalced Carmelites, Puchalski works to integrate patients’ spiritual beliefs into their health care. She authored A Time for Listening and Caring: Spirituality and the Care of the Chronically Ill and Dying.

  • William Stillman

    William Stillman wrote Autism and The God Connection: Redefining the Autistic Experience Through Extraordinary Accounts of Spiritual Giftedness. The Pennsylvania resident writes extensively on the subject, serves on several boards and has Asperger’s Syndrome, a mild form of autism.

  • Yesodot

    Yesodot is a nonprofit that works to build community foundation and support for Jews in the Boston area who have disabilities or special needs. It also provides parental and sibling support.

    Contact: 781-647-5327.

In the South

  • Rosemarie Garland-Thomson

    Rosemarie Garland-Thomson is professor of women’s studies and English at Emory University. One of her areas of expertise is disability studies. She wrote Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Physical Disability in American Culture and Literature.

  • Lift Disability Network

    Lift Disability Network in Winter Garden, Fla., is distributing and researching a device to enhance communication for children with autism spectrum disorders. Lift is interdenominational and faith-based.

  • Jeff McSwain

    Jeff McSwain is the founder of Reality Ministries in Durham, N.C. The nonprofit works to bring together teens and adults, with and without disabilities, “to be reflective of God’s heart for humanity.”

  • Dennis Myers

    Dennis Myers is a professor of social work, with an emphasis on gerontology, at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. He spoke at a September 2013 conference about what congregations can do to help members who have dementia and about how to support their caregivers as well.

  • Mark Pinsky

    Mark I. Pinsky is an author and longtime journalist who covered the religion beat for many years. His books include Amazing Gifts: Stories of Faith, Disability and Inclusion; A Jew Among the Evangelicals: A Guide for the Perplexed; and The Gospel According to the Simpsons: The Spiritual Life of the World’s Most Animated Family. Pinsky lives in suburban Orlando, Fla. Contact through publicist Kelly Hughes.

  • Claude AnShin Thomas

    Claude AnShin Thomas is an author, peace activist, Zen monk and Vietnam veteran. In 1994, he founded the Zaltho Foundation, a spiritually based nonprofit committed to ending violence. The foundation, which is based in Fort Walton Beach, Fla., offers mindfulness meditation retreats to veterans and their families to help them deal with the emotional, psychological and spiritual wounds of war.

  • Brett Webb-Mitchell

    Brett Webb-Mitchell, a Presbyterian minister, is founder and director of the School of the Pilgrim in Carrboro, North Carolina, which encourages people to experience pilgrimages and other Christian practices. A former president of the religion division of the American Association on Mental Retardation, Webb-Mitchell is the author of God Plays Piano Too: The Spiritual Lives of Disabled Children and the 2006 book Follow Me: Christian Growth on the Pilgrim’s Way.

  • Amos Yong

    Amos Yong is a theology professor at Regent University’s School of Divinity in Virginia Beach, Va. He is the author of The Bible, Disability and the Church: A New Vision of the People of God and Theology and Down Syndrome: Reimagining Disability in Late Modernity.

In the Midwest

  • Hector Avalos

    Hector Avalos is a professor of religious studies at Iowa State University and former executive director of the Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion, a division of the Council for Secular Humanism. He specializes in biblical studies. His books include Fighting Words: The Origins of Religious Violence; The End of Biblical Studies; and Se Puede Saber si Dios Existe? [Can One Know if God Exists?]. He also contributed chapters (“Yahweh Is a Moral Monster” and “Atheism Was Not the Cause of the Holocaust”) to The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails. He co-edited This Abled Body: Rethinking Disabilities in Biblical Studies.

  • Kathleen D. Bolduc

    Kathleen D. Bolduc has a son with autism and has written several books stemming from their experiences. They include His Name Is Joel: Searching for God in a Son’s Disability and A Place Called Acceptance: Ministry With Families of Children With Disabilities. She lives in Cincinnati.

  • Bridge Builders

    Bridge Builders is a ministry of the Vineyard Church of Columbus, Ohio, to help incorporate disabled children and their families into the full range of church activities.

  • Shelly Christensen

    Shelly Christensen is program manager for the Minneapolis Jewish Community Inclusion Program for People with Disabilities. She is the author of a community guide to inclusion.

  • Randy Dignan

    Randy Dignan is pastor of Bible Baptist Church in Jefferson City, Mo. He is fluent in American Sign Language, and the church has an extensive ministry for the deaf, including worship services. Dignan grew up surrounded by deaf family members and says he has always felt called to ministry for the hearing-impaired.

In the West

  • W. Daniel Blair

    W. Daniel Blair is assistant professor of American Sign Language and director of the Center for Deaf Education at California Baptist University in Riverside. His dissertation was about theological education and disability.

  • Monica A. Coleman

    Monica A. Coleman is associate professor of constructive theology and African-American religions at Claremont School of Theology in Claremont, Calif. Among her interests is disability theology.

  • Susan Gregg-Schroeder

    The Rev. Susan Gregg-Schroeder is a United Methodist minister in San Diego and coordinator of Mental Health Ministries, an effort that grew from her own experience of depression. She is the author of a paper, “Mental Illness and Families of Faith: How Churches Can Respond.”

  • Daniel N. McIntosh

    Daniel N. McIntosh is a psychology professor at the University of Denver. He has studied autism and the role of religion in family coping with a disabled child and is supervising research on religion and perceptions among parents of children with disabilities.

  • Miracle Project

    The Miracle Project, which runs arts programs for special needs children in the Los Angeles area, offers a bar and bat mitzvah program for kids with autism.

    Contact: 310-829-7034.
  • Craig Rennebohm

    Craig Rennebohm founded the Mental Health Chaplaincy in Seattle in 1987. The chaplaincy provides services for the mentally ill, including homeless people, and training for congregations to support families experiencing mental illness. Rennebohm now trains others for mental health chaplaincy.

Related source guides