It’s our goal as Christians to create welcoming environments and become inviting people. Even with hospitality as our goal, there’s often a group that gets left out – our friends with special needs.
We know from experience that leaders are the start of the welcoming committee, but it takes other students embracing them to make community possible. You may already have students who are part of your church community with special needs, but this may be something your group is lacking. Without people who have disabilities in your church, you are missing part of the image of God.
People with disabilities represent relationships to embrace, not problems to solve.
It’s my hope that this is something you are passionate about, even if you feel overwhelmed wondering where to start. It’s actually much simpler than you think. Here are six ways to include students with special needs in your youth groups and in your personal lives:
1. Be present. Be intentional.
Students are watching you. The way you interact and respond to students with special needs will set the tone for how other students will typically interact with them. Treating every student with dignity while letting students respond to social interactions differently creates a welcoming environment.
2. Trust the Holy Spirit.
Depending on the student’s communication abilities and social skills, you might feel like it’s hard to reach them effectively with the Gospel. Yes, it may be harder and require a different way of communicating, but the Holy Spirit speaks everyone’s language. He is able to make our words translate to everyone.
3. Start with a simple, “Hello.”
Don’t be afraid to introduce yourself to someone new to youth group who has a disability. Knowing their name shows them that you see their value. Going out of your way to meet someone always says the same thing: “You’re important and I’m glad you’re here.” People with disabilities represent relationships to embrace, not problems to solve.
4. Treat them as individuals.
Diagnosing the difficulties of a disabled person is not your responsibility. It doesn’t take research to be a friend. We don’t go around researching the deepest parts of other people we are becoming friends with, so why would we need to just because of a diagnosis? In fact, treating them as an individual and not caring about their diagnosis is a breath of fresh air.
5. Find common interests.
We have one thing in common with everyone: we were all created in God’s imagine. Start thinking this way, and finding common interests will be easier. Someone’s chromosome count, or sensory needs, doesn’t change the fact that they have favorite movies, music and sports. Finding commonalities are much easier when you’re actively looking.
6. Invite them!
I have never met someone who didn’t love to be invited. An invitation is actually a simple task when we really think about it. They have just as much potential for Kingdom work as any other student. Invite them to game nights and service projects. Let them surprise you with how much they have to offer your youth group.