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Insight for Welcoming a Family with Special Needs to your Church

Walking into a new church for the first time can be hard for a family who is navigating the world of special needs. These families approach new situations with such caution and precision. Life is challenging in the most well planned and familiar situations. When coming into a new situation, it can throw off individuals who rely on rigid routines and predictability. Parents and caregivers will make sure they are prepared by doing a little homework. Most will call ahead or visit prior to the first visit. While they are there alone, they will talk to people who attend the church or a lot of times the pastor. They will ask questions that pertain to their situation. For some, knowing that the church is familiar with individuals with special needs will be important. "Are their others who attend who have children that have special needs?", they might ask.  "Is there a disability ministry at the church?",
is another common question. 

What they might not ask for, but would be really helpful, is a tour of the facility. It is a hospitable gesture whether a church has a special needs ministry team or not.
  •  Knowing where the restrooms are for a quick emergency is a must. Are they handicap accessible?
  •  Do you have a dedicated space for sensory breaks? If so, make sure that it is included in your tour. If you don't have a dedicated space at this point, is there a place that this family could bring an overwhelmed child? Is it a place to take an older child with special needs where they could feel welcome? 
  • Ask if the family needs special accommodations for seating? Maybe closer to the back? Balcony seating is often easier in some situations other times not, especially for wheelchair accessibility. Maybe the church could recommend placing a  "reserved seating" sign up for the family across the chairs where they will be seating. 
  •  Churches should seek to protect the dignity of the families and the individual in all situations. Keeping a door of communication open with someone that can assist in meeting the families needs is really key for success. Assume nothing. If you have a question please ask lovingly. 
  • If something doesn't quite work out the first time, be patient as you work with the family as they find their place in your community. 
  • Would the individual with special needs have a place in a classroom with same age peers? If so, arrange for the parent to meet the teachers to discuss accommodations that would need to be made for the student. Would the parent be welcome to sit in? Having a parent sit in a class would be a great idea. This would give the student time to know the teacher and the other students. Providing awareness training for the class is often helpful in building 'natural supports' (peer friendships) in the class. 
A tour and placing someone who knows the ends and outs of the facility, that has the authority to make a quick judgment call for the families needs, can make a world of difference when making them feel welcome. It is easy to get misplaced in a new community. If you don't have someone looking out for you. Not knowing what is acceptable within the church could really make a family feel uncomfortable and ultimately feel unwelcome. Having a disability ministry in place at your church can be a great support for the church and for the individuals and families that need this type of support. 

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