Churches need to include children with disabilities in their summer events planning

(Photo: Unsplash/Aaron Burden)

It's that time of year when church summer clubs are being planned and residential camps for children and young people are opening their bookings.

These activities are often key moments in the faith development of our youngsters. Listen to testimonies and you will often hear how important they have been in someone's life. Memories of them are held into adulthood, either as the point of coming to faith or when a truth about God became a new and precious discovery.

These events are also times when peers learn together and strengthen friendships built on faith, which in turn can be a support when the summer ends and discouragements threaten to overwhelm.

But it's also at this time of year I start to get emails asking about youngsters with additional needs attending summer activities. Sometimes it's to ask advice on how to better facilitate them, but more often than not the questions are more worrying. "Can we legally say no to them" is one. Another is "Can you recommend somewhere more suitable for them."

The reasons given for not wanting to have children or young people with additional needs or disabilities on summer activities vary greatly, but usually have a standard theme to them: safety risks, unable to accommodate, they'll spoil it for others, they won't keep up, not enough space or leaders.

Then there's my personal favourite: "we can only take them if we're trained to restrain them."

I've even had organisers telling me it's unfair that they have to foot the bill to make their event location accessible for so few children.

The standard theme? Always viewing the person with additional needs or disabilities from a negative point of view and as a problem to solve.

I'll start by looking at the "is there somewhere more suitable?" question.

Putting disability into its own silo is not the answer and is unhelpful. Sadly, I suspect the silo approach is more common in churches, and is where this question originates.

I don't look at this with rose tinted glasses. There will be times where a specialist camp would be better for the overall welfare of a young person, but faith based specialist summer activities are rare, can only take a limited number and tend to be for a specific range of additional needs. Therefore, there may not be a "more suitable activity" for them.

Many of those who want to come to our summer events don't want to go to the specialist activities. They want to go to a Christian club or residential activity with their peers, where they can build memories and learn together. They don't want to be put into the disability silo away from where their friends are, and where their only point of connection is having a disability. It's like saying to a red haired person whose friends all have brown hair, "this activity is only for people with brown hair, the one for gingers would be more suitable for you."

Health and safety is a common reason used to reject these children and their families from the Church, but what we perceive could to be a problem often isn't. The risk is usually presumed and not real. Careful planning and good communication with parents and caregivers can make sure any real risks can be minimised.

It is possible for the "we can't accommodate" comment to be a real issue and not an excuse, but those situations are rare. Depending on where the activity takes place, the number of children with additional needs or disabilities and the ratio of leaders, there may be a case for saying that for the child's safety it would be unwise for them to come. But this should be a well considered last resort decision, made with the parents and from a position of love and care. This should not be our first fallback position based on inaccurate assumptions.

The comment on making adjustments for so few children being unfair is interesting. When 1 in 5 people have additional needs and disabilities, then it could be said that our activities should reflect that demographic. Therefore, even just the basic adjustments will be helpful for more than just the one – including our leaders and can even be helpful for those who have no obvious extra needs.

The comment that I don't understand is, "They'll spoil it for everyone else". Depending on what the additional needs are it may be hard work for leaders, but I have only ever seen it enhance relationships and underpin the idea that all are invited to come to God's table.

If we don't allow our children and young people to rub shoulders with those who have disabilities and additional needs, then nothing will change and the myth that they need their own silo 'over there' will continue. I don't want our children growing up with this approach to disability. It is a wonderful thing seeing young people support each other and cheer each other on, no matter what the circumstances or abilities. I often see it work well. Rarely do I see it fail, and even then it's because there is a bully in the mix who needs to be challenged on their attitude.

So, if you're planning summer activities, make plans towards inclusion. Be prepared, ask questions and get training. But please don't turn our young people away.

Kay Morgan-Gurr is Chair of Children Matter and Co-Founder of the Additional Needs Alliance, part of the Evangelical Alliance Council. For more, and on Twitter @kaymorgan_gurr