It is not enough for a youth ministry program to simply be ready to serve the Disabled Youth Community. Rather, the ministry should be proactive in making the Disabled Youth Community aware of it’s accessability. It is hoped that any ministry targeting youth with disabilities will be in contact from the outset with any known families or organizations serving them. It would not be a bad idea to contact such agencies to present your willingness to provide ministry opportunities for students and families that are interested, thereby providing a person contact for any of the referring staff. Of course, the best promotion for your youth group are students with positive experiences of interacting with your youth group.
Outreach material should assure potential students that your ministry gatherings are able to provide accessible, age appropriate youth ministry experiences for persons with a disability. In addition to stating that accommodations and alternative communication strategies can be provided as needed, you may wish to assure the students with disabilities that they are welcome by including the universal accessibility symbol on your literature or website.
There are many facets of an outreach ministry that can be modified to accommodate the needs of youth with disabilities:
- Tailor marketing materials, including signage, messages, brochures, website, and yellow pages ads to people with disabilities. Have all such material state that accommodations are available.
- If the ministry is committed to serving persons who are deaf or hard of hearing, have a dedicated line for a TDD, and have that TDD number printed on all outreach communications.
- Provide a sign interpreter if one is available.
- Create and use mailing lists of organizations that serve people with disabilities.
- Conduct specialized training and presentations (include students with disabilities in the creation of) for adult volunteers and student leaders.
- Adapt conference trips, camps, retreats, etc. with the disabled youth in mind.
- Recruit students with disabilities to the student leader team or hire an intern/staff with a disability.
- Work with family and support agencies (if necessary) to determine style of learning for students with cognitive impairments.
- Link with particular disability groups for their expertise and to create staff training opportunities.
- Be conscious of intersections (e.g. Latino youth who is gay and disabled)
Every ministry should expect to have students for whom they will have to make accommodations, but many of these accommodations will not require extensive or expensive changes. Perhaps even more importantly, making accommodations and adapting your ministry for youth based on their functional limitation should create and environment in which they can be restored to community. Often these disabilities carry with them stigmas that separate and isolation occurs. God’s purpose for all of us is to participate in the restorative activity of God in this world. This is just one of many ways we can do that.
As a general modification to the typical youth ministry gathering, it is necessary to accept different types of body positioning for people with disabilities – some people may need to stand up or move during group, and this activity should not be considered rude. Youth workers may have to keep group meetings short or schedule frequent breaks to help people who lack physical stamina and make allowances for increased travel time to gatherings for people who use wheelchairs or rely on public transportations.
Sometimes students with spasticity or other motor problems, such as those associated with quadriplegia, have voluntary or involuntary movements that are sudden and unusual for people not familiar with them. The youth worker should ensure that group members are not distracted by these movements and understand that they are a normal manifestation of some disabilities.
Youth workers are weary, and rightfully should be, of personal boundary issues (e.g. the side hug with members of the opposite sex). With a student with a physical disability that sense of what is proper may need to be modified for some in need of assistance, such as adjusting a wheelchair, etc. When the proper course of assistance is not apparent, ask the student of family for guidance.
The relative height of the youth worker and disabled student, when seated and talking, may also be an important consideration when working with a student who has a physical disability. Disproportionately great differences in seated height can hinder communication, especially relative to body language.
If a student with a disability has limited transportation options, the creative youth worker will find ways to minster to them and their family. Often visiting them at home or at an alternative site is will allow the youth worker to gain valuable insights into a person’s life and ultimately facilitate effective ministry. It also communicates to the student that they are valued enough to make the effort (we’re hopefully doing this to all students). Going to the residence of a student with disability also provides invaluable information about that student’s lifestyle, interests, and immediate environmental challenges.
Lastly, we must take into consideration not only the physical limitations the student might have, such as; playing certain games or traveling over certain terrain, but also the psychological and social consequences of the disability. Issues that may need to be addressed can include impulsivity, social isolation, low self-awareness relative to medical or psychological needs, anger, feelings of hopelessness, or outright fear at living life with the disability. These issues are hardly new to a seasoned youth worker, nor are the unique to persons with disabilities; however, a disability may exaggerate the severity of these conditions or their impact on your ministry efforts.
Accommodations for students with cognitive impairments can include the use of visual cues, mixed media, and the repetition of major points. Experiential exercises is often effective for a young person with intellectual or cognitive disabilities. Role-playing works well for a person with developmental disabilities – the process of playing a role themselves helps them to internalize it.
The use of verbal and nonverbal cues will help increase participation and learning for students with cognitive disabilities and make the group run more smoothly for all. People with cognitive impairments are often impulsive because they lack normal feedback mechanisms. They do not wish to be impulsive, but lack the ability to regulate this behaviors for themselves. Therefore, youth workers and peer students should try to provide external cueing until the student can internalize it. The youth worker and the youth with a disability can design the cues but should keep them simple, such as touching the person’s leg and saying a trigger word (e.g. “interrupting”). If cues are used in a setting where other people will observe them, alert the group to the cue in a matter of fact way as you would alert them to a use of a dog or the space needed for a wheelchair. Cueing can be useful for people with other types of disabilities and for other purposes as well.
For students with Ad/HD, it is helpful to establish a maximum length of time, for example, 10 minutes, for presentations. Another modification to the group setting, which is beneficial for those with developmental disabilities or brain injury (as well as for other students), is to set aside 10 minutes at the end of the meeting to reinforce what was taught during the group. Such discussion ensures that content is retained and promotes active rather than passive learning. Some students with cognitive disabilities may have problems with time management and will need to be reminded of group meeting times with an email, call, or text.
It may be necessary to make changes to group learning activities in order to accommodate students with cognitive disabilities. The use of alternative media to replace traditional learning tools, such as writing and reading, can be very useful. An individual who has an expressive language disorder may be unfairly judged as uncooperative in participating in group discussions. However, given the opportunity to express himself or herself through artwork, they may be able to communicate quite a bit.
Mixed media can be incorporated in other ways as well. As a group learning exercise, students could work together to “draw the narrow way” depicting all the potential stumbling blocks they might expect to encounter as they go back to school. Students can create memory books or journals (to capture the content of each bible study), or flash cards (or words or pictures) to jog memory of previously taught stories or lessons.
Youth workers should not assume, however, that one student’s experience will be understood by another, particularly in the case of a student with a cognitive disability. There may be a great deal of shared experience, but the student with a disability may not understand it unless it is made specific and pertinent to their own life.
Youth who are visually impaired need to orient themselves to the group setting in a different manner than those who are sighted. They will need to understand the group environment, including the position of all the participants and the format or structure of learning activities such as readings, or breakout discussions, so that they can prepare for them in advance. Other group members should be aware that they cannot use eye contact to communicate with members of the group who are blind, and must rely on different methods such as:
- To guide a person who is blind, let him or her take your arm. When encountering steps, curbs, or other obstacles, identify them.
- When giving directions, be as clear and specific as possible including distance and obvious obstacles.
- Speak to the person in a normal tone and speed.
- It’s okay to touch a blind person on the shoulder or arm to convey communication.
- Don’t touch or play with a working guide dog.
- Ask the person how much vision he or she has and what communication modality they are most comfortable using.
- When leaving a room, say so.
Solutions to access problems:
- Keep pathways clear and raise low-hanging signs or lights.
- Use large letter signs and add braille labels to all signs.
- Keep doors closed or wide open; half open doors are hazardous.
- Have adaptive equipment available so people who are blind can be full ministry participants (i.e., talking computer, Brailler, etc.).
- Make oral announcements; don’t depend on postings, electronic or otherwise.
- Any printed material must be created with larger font size and clear script that is easy to read.
- Add raised or Braille lettering to elevator control buttons, and install entrance indicators at doorways.
- Utilize audio communication tools such as podcasts, streaming sermons, etc.
- Make optical magnifiers and aids available for people with visual impairments.
While accommodations may be needed to integrate people with disabilities into your youth ministry group settings, it is important to first emphasize what all group members have in common. Youth workers can emphasize to the group that, despite a wide variety of individual differences, all members are there for the same reasons. Everyone is present to explore what it means to be a part of God’s unfolding story.
Some groups with a single person who has a visible disability may meet on a regular basis, and disabilities are never discussed. For other groups, this topic may emerge quickly. Although it’s not possible to have one rule that applies to all situations, there are some common considerations. Group members should be oriented to any special considerations that someone with a disability may require in order to effectively participate. Discussions about an individual’s disability can be quite therapeutic to the one with a disability and likewise educational to those who do not.
Group members (students and adults) can be trained to assist in making accommodations for peers who have disabilities. It is important, however, to work with nondisabled students to minimize their enabling of or overcompensating for people with disabilities. It is appropriate to describe to the group the practical aspects of helping the person with a disability, and ask that person to describe what he or she expects people around him or her to do. It is not uncommon for a person with a disability to ask for assistance when needed however, for a person with less awareness or acceptance of their disability, it is important that peers are aware of what is appropriate help to offer.
When working with people with disabilities in a group setting, youth workers may find it useful to alter group participation expectations, limit the time in group, and work with the group to extend the group learning experience outside the confines of the group meeting. While the actual accommodations used will likely be tailored to each individual, there are some general strategies (to be discussed in future posts) that have been successful in making the youth group gatherings more accessible for individuals with particular types of disabilities. (i.e., sensory disabilities, cognitive and intellectual disabilities, and physical disabilities)
One simple question:
Are your youth group gatherings welcoming and accessible to youth with disabilities?