Ministering to young people with a disability

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At the latest Theology Think Tank, speaker Dr Amy Jacober told a story about a summer camp that she led on. At this camp, there were two older teens in wheelchairs who had been dating for a few years. But, they were never on their own, and they had never kissed.

One night at camp, Amy and another leader wheeled them out next to the pool and went back inside to give them some privacy (but not too far away, just in case help was needed). Amy laughed as she told this story, “normally at camp, leaders have to stay up at night to catch teenagers who are trying to kiss and send them back to bed! This was a real turn around.” Doing ministry with young people who have a disability may look different and require us to think outside the square.

At the Think Tank, as people shared why they were there, it became obvious that many of us have young people with disabilities in our lives: friends, family and in our churches. And there are times when it is a struggle to know how to best serve them and communicate gospel truths in a helpful way. One graduate shared the challenge of managing behavioural problems in a group, trying to balance caring for the individual, but also caring for the group as a whole.

Amy responded to these questions by speaking from her theological understanding of disability and many years of practical experience. Essentially, including those with disability is following the example of Jesus. We were were enemies of God, but Jesus died to reconcile us, so that we can be friends with God. “We include adolescents with disabilities not out of obligation or guilt, we do so because they are strangers just like us and Jesus modelled it for us,” Amy comments. We were strangers, but now we are family.

The other principle Amy spoke about is a Christian view of time. We can get so caught up in busyness and programs that we have no time for relationships. Amy argued that inclusion of those with a disability can be a blessing to the rest of the church, as “information flows slower. Activities take longer. Life together moves at a slower pace.” This slower pace reminds us of the importance of relationships and can encourage us to practice spiritual disciplines like prayer and meditation.

Amy also shared some practical tips for youth and children’s ministries:

1. Young people with intellectual disabilities can often understand more than they can communicate.

Take time to listen to them and be optimistic about the work of the Spirit in their life. (Amy showed us an inspiring story about a young woman called Koren that you can view here)

 2. To understand the young person, speak to their parents and even other experts in their life.

One person shared how helpful it was to bring in a child’s speech pathologist to speak to the kid’s club leadership team. They found it made them reassess their expectations of what the child could understand as well as the behaviour they were willing to put up with.

 3. Find out what they are in to.

Ask them questions (or ask their parents) about what they are in to. It could be Dr Who, or racing cars, a movie. This can help you make connections with the young person to build your relationship with them.

 4. Use repetition.

Repetition can be helpful, especially for those with learning difficulties or autism. For example, ask the same four questions after the talk or Bible story each week. What did you like? What did you not like? What would you ask God about this? How might this apply to your week?

 5. Show appreciation.

All young people like to feel that they belong and have a part to play in the Body of Christ. There may be opportunities to encourage someone and show your appreciation. For example, “I really like the way you like to praise God,” to someone who loves to sing.

You may have some practical ideas yourself about ministry with young people with disabilities. If so, please share them in the Youthworks College Facebook group.

Finally, here are some websites and books that might give you some more suggestions and teaching resources:

Hollie Thambyrajah