In this qualitative study we look critically at the opportunity for participation in religious services for people with developmental disabilities from three perspectives: house managers (n = 4), church leaders (n = 6), and people with developmental disabilities residing in group homes (n = 25). Observations were also made at several church services attended by the group home residents. Results suggest that people with developmental disabilities want to go to church and enjoy religious worship. Their full inclusion in activities and developing friendships, however, appears to be quite limited due to the conflicting expectations of house managers and church leaders, the lack of transportation or support staff, and the stereotypical attitudes towards people with developmental disabilities.
With the movement of individuals with developmental disabilities from institutions to community residences in recent decades, attention has been focused on successful integration into the community. Most of the researchers in the field of developmental disabilities have largely considered assessment of adaptive skills and participation in typical activities (i.e., eating at a restaurant, attending a movie, going to church) as evaluating the outcomes of community living. There is a large gap in the literature regarding the personal struggles between individuals with developmental disabilities and their community (McVilly & Rawlinson, 1998). In order to conduct a contextual analysis of social life, Kvale (1996) suggested that systematic, open-ended, and semi-structured interviews best construct the various experiences and interactions of individuals. Taylor and Bogdan (1998), who have conducted extensive research in disability studies, suggested that this methodology provides a voice and personal perspective to those who often do not have the means to present their views. Our purpose in this qualitative study was to gain an understanding of participation in religious services for people with developmental disabilities. In addition, results of this research provide insight into these experiences from the perspective of the individuals, church leaders, and house managers.
Participation in religious services has had a long history of study within the field of sociology. From the early beginnings of the discipline, Durkheim (1954) considered how involvement in religious life impacted both the individual and society. Religious participation provided a means for individuals to become integrated into a single moral community. The bonds between members of the group, he believed, are strengthened through shared experiences and common beliefs. Further, these moral thoughts provide individuals with a philosophical framework that enables them to interpret and understand social life (Durkheim, 1954).
The aging population of Western societies has resulted in a tremendous amount of research on religious participation and its relation to various aspects of life for older adults (Koenig, 1995; Levin, 1997; Levin, Chatters, & Taylor, 1998 McFaddin, 1996). Idler and Kasl (1997) found in their epidemiological study of the elderly (N = 2,812) that religious beliefs foster good health practices, cohesive social networks, support throughout the lifespan, and a set of beliefs for interpreting the events of life and death. Positively correlated with church attendance were increased friendship networks, leisure activities, and social roles.
Seeking to understand the impact of participation in religious services for people with disabilities, Selway and Ashman (1998) conducted a literature review of studies in which investigators looked critically at religious participation and its impact on various age groups of individuals with physical disabilities. First, they found several studies that reflected improved health conditions for those who attended church. Some of these conditions included lower blood pressure, less incidence of functional disability, and fewer incidents of depression (Grahman et al.: Idler; Idler & Kasl, cited in Selway & Ashman, 1998).
In addition, Selway and Ashman (1998) found research in which investigators critically looked at the negative impacts of religious participation. There was a dichotomy in attitudes about disability and religious experiences, reflecting either beliefs in divine punishment or divine purpose. One case study included a 44-year-old woman who had contracted polio at the age of 2 years. Her church had provided spiritual instruction and experiences, yet kept her alienated. Her first Holy Communion was offered in a private ceremony in her home. She noted:
I was called a saint and told God loves me so much He has given me this cross to bear. I heard that so many times. I felt an enormous amount of pressure to be perfect because I was one of God's favorites. (Phillips, 1988, cited by Selway & Ashman, 1998, p. 206)
A similar case study supported these personal experiences. A woman with quadrilateral limb deficiencies was interviewed. She attended church regularly and was promised that she would have a miracle of healing. When she was asked when this would occur, her response was “In God's own eternal time” (Frank, 1990, cited by Selway & Ashman, 1998, p. 43). This hope could have provided the individual with strength and comfort but also might, over time, create a sense of frustration or despair.
In an examination of four central views of both Christian and Jewish faiths, Rose (1997) found that some of the ideologies inherent in these religious beliefs act as barriers to those with disabilities. Biblical texts contain images of disability as evil and those with disabilities as the object of charity. These views suggest that people with disabilities may be excluded from religious practice. Unfortunately, even when discriminated against or excluded, people with disabilities have no legal processes available to them because of the separation of church and state (Rose, 1997). Alper, Schloss, and Schloss (1994) found support for Rose's findings. They suggested one of the reasons families do not attend religious services is the negative theological explanation for disabilities. Further, church pastors and staff members are not prepared to counsel or assist parents and families of children with developmental disabilities (Drew, Logan, & Hardman, cited by Alper et al., 1994, p. 73).
King (1998) discussed the double oppression of having two statuses devalued by society. She interviewed five African American women with physical disabilities, using a semi-structured format incorporating four open-ended questions. The two primary themes that emerged from her interviews were the ambivalent, yet exaggerated focus the congregation seemed to have toward these women and the desire to overprotect them. Some of their experiences included not being given things to do in the churches and the sense of not feeling welcomed by the congregation while being spotlighted by the pastor or priest. In addition, they felt that the design of churches made it impossible to sit with family members. Perhaps most devastating to the women was the expectation of marriage and of family not being fulfilled. There were negative messages given about the “appropriateness” of marriage or motherhood. If young men would become interested in them, one woman mentioned she would overhear a comment from friends to the men “is that the best you can do?”
In the research literature investigators have paid some attention to families who have children or adults with developmental disabilities and their participation in church services and activities. Gaventa et al. (1997) found that for many families the church was a very supportive environment for them and their children. One family noted that there was a trust of the church community, and their daughter attended her Sunday school independently because of the supportive atmosphere. Further, the pastor of the church attended their daughter's individual habilitation program (IHP) meeting to offer and receive suggestions on how their congregation might facilitate this young woman's goals.
In the Los Angeles Times, Watanabe (1999) described a congregation that included those with disabilities in various aspects of church participation. In interviews some of these members with disabilities told the journalist “Our greatest barrier is those who would limit us with their attitude and pre-determine who we are and what we can do.” One young man with developmental disabilities in this congregation was invited to play the part of a shepherd in the Christmas play.
In the present research we further explore, through qualitative analysis, the perceptions of inclusion and barriers within church services and activities for those with developmental disabilities, their caregivers, and church leaders. The insights of religious participation from these various perspectives have been neglected in the literature.
Having conducted interviews with over 400 people with developmental disabilities in Oklahoma over a 2-year period in the late 1990s, I (the first author) was familiar with many agencies that serve this population. I chose an agency for this research study that had several group homes conveniently located near my residence. After visiting with the director of the agency, who was cooperative and supportive of the study, I chose four of the homes (three with 6 people and one with 12) for my sample. I contacted each of the four resident house managers, made appointments for my interviews, and learned of the different churches attended by the residents. A total of 25 individuals with developmental disabilities out of a possible 30 were interviewed. (A variety of canned diet beverages were given to all those in the group home, whether they participated in the survey or not.) Two of the residents refused, and 3 did not appear to have the cognitive skills necessary to answer questions (based on their house manager's assessment). In addition, I interviewed the four house managers. Further, I contacted the four churches attended by the different members of the group homes. Two pastors, three Sunday school teachers, and one pastor's wife agreed to be interviewed. I visited each of the churches' various services, including Sunday school classes and morning and evening worship to observe the congregation's reaction and interactions with the individuals from the group home.
I obtained permission from each of the people with developmental disabilities residing in the sample group homes and asked them to sign a consent form. This form was read aloud to them, and the manager witnessed their written acceptance. For those who had court-appointed guardians and wanted to be interviewed, I contacted their guardians and obtained verbal permission, which was heard by the house manager, who was on a second phone. Originally, I was going to ask one set of questions for all three groups of people. However, the more complex questions asked of the church leadership and house managers proved to be overwhelming and confusing for the people with developmental disabilities. I then decided to ask five basic questions: Do you go to church? Do you like the church you go to? Do you get phone calls or visits from people at church? What do you like best about your church? Is there anything you don't like about your church? I tried to encourage them to share all of their experiences and allowed them time to tell me everything they could about their religious participation.
For the managers, pastors, and Sunday school teachers, I used the following questions: What do you think are the challenges that face a person who has a disability? What are some of the most positive experiences you have had in religious participation? The most negative? How would you describe the attitudes toward people with disability in your congregation? What changes would you like to see in your congregation's treatment and attitudes toward people with a disability?
Validity and Reliability
Being a research assistant on the Developmental Disabilities Quality Assurance Research Project at Oklahoma State University, under the supervision of the second author, provided me with training in interviewing people with developmental disabilities. During my graduate research assistantship, I conducted over 400 interviews during the 2 years I worked on the grant. In addition, I began a Companion Ministry in my church, where I have been a companion to two women with developmental disabilities. I brought them to church for approximately 2 years. During this time I came to know them and have gained some understanding of the barriers they faced, not only attending church but also feeling accepted. I also learned of the importance they placed in being part of a church service and of a small Sunday school class. This comfort level around people with disabilities and the provision of a relaxed atmosphere for those being interviewed is important for obtaining accurate information (Rubin & Rubin, 1995; Taylor & Bogdan, 1998). Some researchers have questioned the reliability of the answers given by people with developmental disabilities. Parent and Kregel (1996), however, conducted a test–retest reliability study on 27% of the interviews they conducted with people who had developmental disabilities, or 30 of the 100 instruments administered. A significant Pearson correlation coefficient of .82 was obtained across two time periods, p < .0001. Their findings indicate a strong direct relationship between individual responses on the first and second administration of the surveys conducted up to 2 months apart by two different interviewers. People with developmental disabilities were able to give consistent answers to questions and to answer them meaningfully.
Through my interviews with people who have developmental disabilities, I have found that many such individuals are quite capable of expressing their feelings and desires. They are eager for someone to listen to their opinions. Because they were so open and candid, it was necessary to assure confidentiality and to conduct the research with integrity and thoroughness. Personal identifiers were not used when writing the responses to the interview questions. The consent forms did not have anything on them that would connect the form with a specific interview. The consent form was read to each individual to ensure his or her willingness to participate. The original notes were locked in my file cabinet. The group homes were only identified in the research study by codes A, B, C, or D, and the church congregations were coded as 1, 2, 3, or 4.
The 25 people (6 men, 19 women) with developmental disabilities had a range of cognitive diagnosis, from mild to moderate mental retardation. Six of them had court-appointed guardians and, therefore, were not able to sign consent forms. These legal limitations, however, did not limit their ability to express their feelings and concerns. When I was asked to contact their guardian so they could visit with me about going to church, I willingly complied. Nearly all of the residents expressed the importance of church participation. When I asked, “Do you like to go to church?” some responses were: “I like it. People treat you nice.” “My church celebrated my birthday. You could have knocked my socks off!” “My Sunday school teacher's name is Steve. He's nice.” “I get to visit with my boyfriend at church.” “I go to church with my dad. He sings in church.” “We get to eat at church sometimes. I like the cookies.”
Like other people, the individuals I interviewed saw church as a place to be welcomed, to be recognized, and to visit with others. Several of the residents mentioned enjoying the music and singing. In addition, a Catholic Church in a town approximately 30 to 45 minutes from the four group homes had a summer camp for people with developmental disabilities, regardless of their religious affiliation. About half of the interviewees (n = 12) had attended the camp. They mentioned this experience when asked about church. Several mentioned the specific activities they enjoyed at camp: horse-back riding, fishing, singing, games with the camp priest. When I asked “What was the best thing about camp?” one of the women just smiled and said “Everything!” and then gestured two thumbs up.
Although the residents initially made positive statements about attending church, when I asked about getting visits or phone calls, their tone of voice and demeanor changed. Some of the comments to the question “Do you get any visits or phone calls from the people at church?” were “I don't get any calls or visits, but I wish they would come to see me.” “I would like visits.” “I wish someone would call or visit, my father is going to the hospital.”
When I asked about their favorite thing regarding church worship, the participants gave varied responses. Several mentioned their camp experience as their favorite thing; music was another frequent answer. One of the men mentioned that learning ABCs was his favorite thing. Through my visits to the churches, I learned that all four of the churches had a separate Sunday school class for those with developmental disabilities. The teachers in these classes often taught simple skills such as the alphabet, numbers, colors, and shapes. One of the classes had specific literature written for those with limited cognitive skills. It was religious educational material similar to that used for typical congregational studies but with larger print and simpler sentences.
When I asked if there were anything about going to church that was not good, the majority of comments came from 4 individuals from one group home who attended one specific church. The other 19 residents from the other group homes merely replied that there was not anything bad about church. The 4 individual responses were: “They talked bad about one of the girls here. They said she stinks and made her cry. I go to another church now.” “I went to church and they pushed my hand.” “The church people was mean to me. I go to another church now. I go to the ladies' Sunday school class.” “I couldn't go to the church picnic. It was for the other people.” (Their group home could not attend without a caregiver attending with them.) I explored these issues from the perspectives of house managers and the church leaders.
Perceptions of the House Managers
The four house managers felt that the different churches only minimally accepted the men and women from the group homes. Visits, phone calls, extra activities, and transportation often were not provided. The house managers were especially aware of the lack of visits and phone calls. One group home house manager had this comment:
When I visited a church for the first time several years ago, I was pestered to death by different people from the church calling and asking me to come again. When my ladies went to a new church, no one called or came to visit. Some of them have been very regular [attendees] now.
Another of the group home managers stated that the women from her group home enjoyed participating in church but had had several negative experiences. Some of the ladies had changed churches. The manager had this to say about the ladies' church experiences.
I was called about a resident who would not stay in her pew. I asked if she had an assigned seat. I was told that the group home had a special row where they needed to sit. On two other occasions I was called to come pick up the residents. The first time a church member said one of the women was dirty and smelled; the second time her clothes were wrinkled. I wonder if any of their other members had come in wrinkled clothes if they would be asked to leave?
The third group home manager had minimal problems, although many of the individuals in her home wanted to attend several different churches. This resulted in difficulty providing transportation or staying to assist the women at any one particular church. The manager also mentioned that although the churches had initially seemed very accepting and supportive, extra activities seemed problematic. One specific incident regarded an announcement the women received in the mail about a church picnic. When the manager called the church, she was told that the women in the group home could not attend unless they were “supervised.”
The last house manager I visited with had no specific problems to report but did comment about the enjoyment of services and phone calls and visits:
The ladies here really enjoy going to church. We haven't had many problems. Two of the ladies are dressed by 7:00 a.m. even though we don't leave till 9:00 a.m. They don't seem to get many calls or visits. I do remember when one of the ladies was sick and missed her Sunday school class the teacher called and talked with her. Our home attends two different churches, and it is difficult at times. Sometimes we all go to one church if the weather is bad, and I attend the church service with them.
Perceptions of Church Leadership
One of the pastors I interviewed had an aunt with developmental disabilities. This had made him comfortable around people with disabilities. He was the pastor of the last church I observed. His church was a charismatic church, and he had this to say about their service:
A Pentecostal church is a more receptive place because it is lively with lots of music and, generally, people with special needs enjoy that. Also, it's not unusual for people to holler and say “Amen” or “Praise the Lord.” So, when someone with special needs makes noises or hollers it isn't offensive and as obvious in churches with a more formal atmosphere. There have been a few problems. We had a man with mild mental retardation and a mental illness who attended our church [this gentlemen lived in supported living and was not one of the individuals from the group home]. He came for several weeks and joined the choir. After a while, he began making passes at several married women in the church. The assistant pastor went and talked with the caregiver and learned some information about the gentleman. Then he talked with the man and told him his behavior wasn't appropriate and he would have to act properly around the married women of the church. Since then, there have been no further incidents. The three ladies from the group home who attend, haven't been coming for very long. Usually they just come to church. If they start coming to Sunday school, I'm sure we will start to have a special class for them.
A Sunday school teacher at another church made these comments about segregated Sunday school classes.
I was approached about teaching when several adults began coming from the nearby group home. I was teaching a pre-school class at the time and it was felt that I would have the patience to work with special need adults. We have materials geared for those with developmental disabilities that we get from the convention. I also try and teach them things like colors or ABCs. I believe two of the people who attend my class could be easily integrated into age appropriate Sunday school classes, but our adults feel uncomfortable around these individuals and felt they should be in their own class.
I was especially anxious to visit the church where there had been allegations of negative treatment. I arrived at church about 30 minutes before the service started and was able to visit with the pastor for about 15 minutes. When I explained the nature of my visit, he said their church members were very accepting of the ladies and were happy the women attended his church. He made this statement:
I think you will notice our folks greet them and treat them like everyone else. We have had to police them. One of the ladies tends to wander during the church service. We've given them a special pew just for them, so they will always have a place to sit. The ladies seem pleased we have given them this special place.
The pastor mentioned that one of the caregivers had asked whether the individuals from the group home might serve in some capacity in the church. He commented that this would not be possible. “You understand,” he explained “some people might feel uncomfortable or afraid.”
Perceptions of Participant Observations
During my visit at one church, I attended a small Sunday school class. There were only three individuals in attendance. In my field notes I wrote:
The Sunday school teacher explained the lesson was on giving and handed me a booklet to use. One of the gentlemen, Mr. Robert, sat at the head of the table and smiled. In the middle of the lesson, he suddenly began telling about a visitor he had from the church. “He says he stays a long time to visit me so he won't have to kiss me good-bye.” With that he burst into laughter. A few minutes later he repeated this little story. I could tell the teacher was becoming quite uncomfortable with this disruption but pretended to ignore it and continue with the story.
The disruptions seemed especially prevalent in a second church. Again, looking at my field notes:
During my visit to the church service, I noticed several of the people with developmental disabilities in the next to the last row of the church. I quietly came in and sat down. The assistant pastor was making announcements when one of the individuals recognized me from my interviews and waved real big and said hi! Several people in the congregation turned around. One lady sitting behind the lady with disabilities tapped her on the shoulder and said “Shhhh.” The woman with disabilities put her head down and seemed quite embarrassed. When everyone stood to sing, there were several members of the congregation who went forward and began to sing and sway with their hands raised toward heaven. One of the ladies from the group home started to go forward. She got a little louder than most everyone, and several people from the congregation looked at each other. Finally, when the songs ended a woman from the congregation came and took the woman with disabilities by the arm and led her back to her seat. I'm not sure if the woman with disabilities had any negative feelings about the incident, but it was clear that several people in the congregation were uncomfortable. Later on in the service, another woman from the group home suddenly got up and moved toward the front. She sat down by a couple. Soon she went to put her arm around the woman to whom she was sitting the closest. The woman smiled at her and then after a few minutes took her hand away and put it down.
At the Sunday school in the third church I visited, there were four people with developmental disabilities in attendance. During the Sunday school lesson about Moses and the Red Sea, there were many constant small interruptions. One of the older gentlemen kept getting out a picture of his girlfriend to show everyone. The teacher asked him to wait till later and then just ignored the interruptions. A middle-age woman suddenly blurted out, “I did it. I got new glasses.” Another woman from the class got up in the middle of the lesson and announced she was going to the bathroom. She came back, stopped by the plate of donuts, and brought two back to her place. These continuous interruptions made teaching the lesson quite difficult for the teacher and made me feel uncomfortable as well. This experience provided me with some understanding of the difficulties that might be encountered in a typical Sunday school environment.
The pastor's wife visited with me after Sunday school. She explained that the teacher of the special needs class was an older gentleman who had worked with some of the members of the Sunday school class at their sheltered workshop for the last 10 years. She talked about the Sunday class and the problems:
He [the Sunday school teacher] loves these people so much that he wanted to start a Sunday school class for them. I will take over when it becomes too difficult for him. I am aware that he repeats himself and doesn't hear as well as he used to, but I know it's going to be hard for him to give up this class. The people who come to this class have different cognitive levels, making teaching rather difficult. One of the ladies is nonverbal, and another lady is quite high functioning, but emotionally she is quite immature and she continuously eats as much as she can of anything that is brought. It is hard for this teacher to monitor or correct her behavior. It would really be helpful if one of the staff that brings them could stay, but I know they are short-handed.
Despite the several incidents of disruptive moments, I was aware of the times when the individuals with developmental disabilities blended into the congregation. They often sang, stood, and bowed their heads without notice and with an acceptance of their participation. In one of the churches in particular, I noted that there was a companion or family member who sat with the two residents in attendance. There did not seem to be any “spotlighting” of the individuals with disabilities as mentioned in the literature; however, I did not attend enough of the services to know with confidence that it did not occur.
Several important themes emerged from my interviews and observations. First, the majority of residents expressed their desire to attend church and be part of the congregation in formal worship and informal activities. These individuals expressed their enjoyment of the music, personal recognition by their Sunday School teacher or pastor, and the ability for some to attend a church camp. The house managers noted the anxious anticipation of going to church for some of their residents, mentioning how early they were dressed and ready to go. Further, only 2 of the 25 residents interviewed did not attend any church services, although they all had the option of staying home.
Second, no agency staff mentioned any preparation for their residents to attend church. Rather, the assumption seemed to be that the churches should accept people with developmental disabilities regardless of how they dressed or behaved. Further, no one mentioned meeting with the pastor or staff regarding the participation of their residents in the church community. Although one might assume that the church should be open to all, in other institutions, such as educational environments, the staff and teachers are given training. Church leaders or any other professional, with the exception of special education teachers, do not appear to take any relevant course work at the undergraduate or graduate level.
Agencies and the Department of Human Services generally provide training for staff of agencies and families. There is a tremendous gap in education for people who serve in religious organizations to have training or information available to them. This has resulted in the tendency toward baby-sitting and policing individuals with intellectual disabilities rather than ministering to them. In addition, the attitude of the child-like state of people with developmental disabilities seemed predominant. This resulted in the teaching of shapes, colors, and ABCs by a preschool teacher in one church organization. The one larger church did have special materials provided by their denomination that covered specific religious concepts and Biblical stories using pictures and shorter sentences to facilitate understanding.
Another theme that emerged from the data was the breaking of social norms that created various problems. Perhaps these difficulties can be best be interpreted by Goffman's (1959) Presentation of Self and the dramaturgical analysis of social behavior. Considering social interaction that occurs in a specific location a play, when the performance does not proceed as anticipated, it becomes disrupted. Goffman defined these embarrassing or confusing acts that often bring social interaction to a halt as performance disruptions. Churches, like other social institutions, have specific performances that occur within the confines of their structures. Leaders have their unique parts or roles and the audience is to respond to certain cues. There is a sense of frustration and awkwardness during the times when disruptive events occur, leaving everyone involved more distant and more likely to retain their stereotypical attitudes.
Finally, a sense of belonging and community was evident for those residents who had one or two people in the church who became their friends. In the church where social interaction seemed unnoticeable, people with developmental disabilities attended the main worship service with a companion or family member. There were fewer residents in attendance at that particular church. Perhaps the congregation was able to see the residents as individuals rather than a group of people from a “home.”
The literature suggests that for many people, participation in religious services and being included in the various activities of the church have a positive impact on specific health problems and on quality of life. Results of the present study suggest that people with developmental disabilities are able to enjoy religious worship, but their inclusion in activities and development of friendships within the church community is quite limited. Their problems and need for support are just as real as those of any person. They may have parents in the hospital or may face their own health problems. They desire someone to call or visit or notice if they are absent. Pastors and church leaders could try to be more aware of their members with developmental disabilities and be as faithful to visit and call them as they are to other members of their congregation. Perhaps inclusion of disability course work in seminary training would enable religious leaders to feel more comfortable serving people with developmental disabilities. The Department of Human Services or other agencies serving those with developmental disabilities could also have workshops or seminars.
The specific problem of performance disruptions seems to be largely due to the lack of socialization in church settings and misunderstandings between caregivers and religious leaders. After visiting with the house managers, I realized that they felt the women should be accepted any way they came and in whatever attire they choose. Although choice is important for people with developmental disabilities, information and awareness of church members' expectations seems lacking. Informed choices are given in regard to work (i.e., you need to iron the shirt you choose, or those shorts are not acceptable at your work). Many of these adults had lived in institutions until just a short 4 or 5 years ago, where they attended a nondenominational service in an institutional setting. Wide varieties of behaviors were acceptable, and any dress was appropriate. However, in the church community as in other social settings, there is a protocol—an expected behavior and dress. When individuals, with or without disabilities, violate social expectations, disruptions and embarrassments result. These expected behaviors could be learned. Many adults with developmental disabilities who work at sheltered workshops or other places of employment have learned certain behaviors—to be quiet during work, to go to certain places for break, and wait to eat or drink until certain times. Perhaps there needs to be more socialization to church settings to enable individuals with developmental disabilities to be comfortable and accepted. Zigler, Hodapp, and Edison (1990) have discussed this concept of socialization:
In attempting to get beyond the label of normalization, we must first acknowledge that workers in mental retardation have too often been concerned only with the physical settings of services of retarded individuals. We have conceptualized institutions, group homes, special education, and mainstreamed classes only as places, not as places within which interactions occur. . . . A better strategy involves consideration of the actual social psychological characteristics within each setting. In particular, we need specific knowledge about how each type of setting, and each example within each setting, influences those social psychological variables that impinge upon the person's everyday life. (p. 7)
Church services, like other places of social interaction, have various norms for behavior, dress, and interaction with others. Agencies serving people with developmental disabilities have provided job coaches for individuals working in the community, yet there is a lack of awareness for the need for socialization into a church community. The expectation of house managers seems to be that church leaders and members should have an understanding of how to teach, love, and befriend someone with developmental disabilities. The church leaders seem unprepared for the task and expect the house managers to simply remove people from participation rather than have direct communication and discussion about the various concerns. Through continuing education of house managers, agencies—including the Department of Human Services—could discuss ways in which religious participation may be facilitated.
Second, some of the pastors and church leaders seem hesitant to discuss problems. This lack of communication seems to result in ignoring issues until the situation becomes problematic or individuals are asked to leave. One of the pastors seemed to handle a difficult situation effectively with direct communication, resulting in a more positive outcome for the individual. Another possible solution would be to have a companion for each person with developmental disabilities. The pastors/Sunday school teachers could try to match up different members to sit with an individual with developmental disabilities and help him or her learn the appropriate behaviors and routines and to be a friend.
Finding enough people who want to help, especially in small churches, can be problematic. Often those who are available and are willing to help are not familiar with people who have developmental disabilities and are concerned they could not help or would not be able to work with people who have special needs. Having a chance to get to know such individuals initially with trained staff present might increase acceptance.
Hoeksema (1995) gave three practical guidelines for workers in group homes that might help facilitate church integration. First, the agency should recognize that their staff members have personal life experiences that influence their opinions and attitudes toward church organizations. Therefore, the administrative staff of the agency needs to be aware of how to support choices made by the residents in the group home. Second, the staff members should take the initiative to understand the preferences of their residents and to help facilitate their participation in the church of their choice. Finally, past practices and current preferences of the people in the home should be considered. When residents are not sure what church to go to when they move to a new residence, it is important that the managers understand their previous choices or provide them with opportunities to visit various churches in the area. In order to implement these practices, it seems critical that weekend staff not be sparse but similar to the weekdays, when many diverse activities take place. Further, having positive communication and training available for members of the church congregation might provide the agency with volunteers who want to help facilitate inclusion of people with developmental disabilities.
Results of this study suggest several additional issues for consideration. First, agencies serving people with developmental disabilities could meet the church leaders where their consumers attend worship and help facilitate their integration into the religious community. Second, the religious community might recognize their responsibility to all members of their congregation. Seminaries, colleges, and universities could provide course work on disability studies to enable future pastors and church leaders and other professionals to be better informed and equipped to serve people with developmental disabilities. Statewide conferences in several states have provided valuable information and resources for those who work with individuals who have disabilities. Perhaps church members within various states could be sent information about these types of conferences. Finally, honest and open communication with people who have developmental disabilities regarding social norms and expectations within religious settings might be helpful.
All of us desire to know what is expected in certain social situations so we can feel more comfortable and accepted. The church is one of the few social institutions that provide a sense of community through shared beliefs and socially valued roles across the life span. It is imperative that barriers to full inclusion in the church community for people with developmental disabilities be addressed.
Authors:Carol A. Minton, MS, Doctoral Candidate ( email@example.com) California Baptist University, 8432 Magnolia Ave., Box 1193, Riverside, CA 92504. Richard A. Dodder, PhD, Professor of Sociology, 006 CLB, Oklahoma State University, Stillwater, OK 74078