This was originally published in the Inquest Ministries, Inc. newsletter and on their blog. It was written for an audience primarily of youth ministry leaders, many of whom are not currently involved in special needs ministry.
Do you have teens with special needs in your ministry?
Odds are yes, given that 6.6 million children and youth have disabilities, according to the most recent data available from the U.S. Department of Education. Of those, 2.6 million have learning disabilities. More than 800,000 have autism or intellectual disabilities (previously referred to as “mental retardation”). Seven percent of children ages 3-17 have been diagnosed with ADD/ADHD (including 11% of boys and 4% of girls). And one in 110 eight-year-olds has an autism spectrum disorder (1 in 70 for boys, 1 in 315 for girls).
Those certainly don’t include all the possible special needs a student could have, but it’s a start. This is the reality in which we do ministry. (And, if your ministry doesn’t include any students with special needs, then please let these statistics open your eyes to the mission field that exists within your community!)
So what can you do? Is this an opportunity or an inconvenience?
Well, let’s consider the benefits you and your ministry can gain from welcoming students with special needs. You’ll get to…
1) Partner with parents more effectively. In student ministry, we ought to be partnering with every parent, but it shifts from “ought to be partnering” to “must partner” with the parents of students with special needs. If a student has a disability, it is harder for parents to drop off the child and then bolt. They’ll probably want to talk to you. And that’s a very good thing!
2) Practice confidentiality. Most students don’t want to be different from everyone else, or if they do, they want to define the difference. A streak of color in their hair? Good different. A seat in special education? Not the sort of different they usually want shared with their friends.
3) Learn humility. I have my master’s degree in special education, but that doesn’t give me the advantage in special needs ministry that you might expect. I learn from each of our students with special needs and their families, because they can teach me far more about their disabilities and challenges than any textbook or website ever could. Realizing you don’t know it all and having to learn from others? That’s an opportunity to develop humility.
4) Adjust your teaching to benefit all students. Common modifications for students with special needs include limiting distractions, adding multi-sensory elements (visuals, audio, movement, touch), and breaking content into chunks and reviewing after each one. Every time I’ve made accommodations for students with disabilities, they have also helped non-disabled students. Seriously, what middle school boy wouldn’t benefit from fewer distractions?
5) Include all parts of the body of Christ. Ministering to and with students with disabilities shows that, in the words of 1 Corinthians 12:24-25, “God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another.” It’s our sin that bestows honor on some while rejecting others; it’s God who can bring unity where we – both in the church and outside of it – have created division.
And the number one benefit? Welcoming individuals with disabilities into our student ministries and every other aspect of the church is about the Gospel. When we share the Gospel with all students, including those with disabilities, it changes us and it changes them. It can change a generation.
Is it always easy to include students with special needs in your ministry? No. Is it an unequivocal display of the works of God (John 9:3; Psalm 78:7) and the value of all life? Yes.
It’s an opportunity, not an inconvenience.