Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Kids with disabilities missing from religious services, finds a study. But you knew that.

Max was supposed to attend services at our temple recently, except he bailed. Our temple has a program partnering youth with disabilities with buddies, and he basically stood his buddy up. No amount of persuasion or cajoling would induce him to walk into the service.

Participating in religious services has been a long haul for our family. Some of you may recall that, years ago, I quit our temple after basically being told that if I wanted a program for Max, I’d have to start it myself. I just didn’t have the bandwidth. For a while, we temple-hopped. A few years later, a new rabbi was hired, a warm, caring, inclusion-oriented man. He listened to me. The temple started offering services for families with children who had special needs. Eventually, that evolved into the blended program that exists now.

I wasn’t alone in my struggle to find a place for Max at our temple, as I found out when I wrote about our journey and heard from other parents. Children with disabilities remain absent from houses of worship, as new research from Clemson University shows.

One in four children with developmental delays, learning disabilities, anxiety and conduct disorders never attends church. That number is one in three for children with autism, depression, speech problems and brain injury.

“I would like to think that this research could serve as a wake-up call to the religious communities in our nation,” said Andrew Whitehead, assistant professor of sociology, and a father of two children with autism who did the research. (Let us all say: AMEN.) “In many ways, this population is unseen because they never show up, or when they do, they have a negative experience and never return.”

While there are an increasing number of programs and options, we still have a long way to go. As much as it seems like welcoming people of all abilities to services should be a given at houses of worship, it still isn’t.

Max ended up hanging at the toddler service with Ben and Dave. He watched delightedly as Ben danced around. They listened to a woman playing fun songs on her guitar.  Years ago, the music in that room would have been too much for him, but he was happy to be there and I was happy for him. More traditional  services aren’t cutting it and he’ll find meaning in other ways. And that’s perfectly OK.


  1. I'm not religious but attend a Unitarian Universalist church from time to time. When I was caring for my young cousin who had some trauma related behaviors I took him with me. He LOVED it. They were great. The kids room was all about the kids. No one cared if they ran arouns, touched things ect. The teacher was patient and kind. Years later when they had a bigger building they set aside space so a preschool that served kids with disabilities could open up. There was no formal program for people with disabilities but I always felt that they would just figure out how to make it work for each child, regardless of what they needed or why they needed help.

  2. This is part of the reason I’m having trouble finding our “community”. I’m renewing an effort to find a church that is a good for this Fall.

  3. Although they are few, there are places that do offer programming geared towards kids with disabilities. Tenth Church in Center City does. They also offer interpreters for hearing impaired.


Thanks for sharing!

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