Tag Archives: welcoming

Essay Contest: Blog #4 Brittany French

Brittany was one of the first people that befriended me many years ago when my daughter and I started attending The Chosen Ministry. In her shy way, she would ask about Samantha and then about me, always remembering details that many would miss if they weren’t really listening. What a gift!

FIN would like to both thank and congratulate Brittany for sharing her story and being the winner of our very first essay contest.  As you read her essay you will realize that the remarkable thing about this story is how simple it really is…a church doing what many others do; reach out to the community and educate children in the faith.  What made a difference in Brittany’s life is how she felt and the continued acceptance as a person with a disability as she grew up in the church.  Even more wonderful, being a member of the congregation eventually led to finding a job nearby.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful if more adults with disabilities were able to find work through the natural connections we make in our congregations?

So again we thank you, Brittany for not only writing this essay, but presenting it at our Gifts of the Heart Gala on March 11. You did a great job! -K. Jackson

My Faith Journey

Author Brittany French with Karen Fox who leads The Chosen Ministry in Norfolk

by Brittany French

The hospitality of a neighbor inviting me to church and the hospitality of the church folk accepted me even though I have several disabilities and this changed my life forever. I was three years old when a neighbor invited my twin sister and me to attend Sunday School at a church down the street from my house. My twin sister does not have the intellectual and physical disabilities that I live with every day. I began this adventure in the classroom with two wonderful teachers that made me feel loved and wanted.

In Sunday School we did arts and crafts related to Bible stories, we memorized verses and sat on a rug to hear the bible story of the day. My favorite event at church was attending Vacation Bible School in the summer. I loved playing outside and being with the other children. The other children did not treat me differently because of my disability. That made me feel good. I was always accepted for who I was. In fact, my church has five people with disabilities in the congregation because this church accepts and welcomes all people who come in.

Throughout the years, I continued to go to Sunday School each week. My faith grew stronger as I grew older and began to understand what the bible stories were saying. As an adult I joined the church I had been going to for so many years. This was a place I was accepted as God’s child, made in his image. I am what God wanted me to be. The church has helped me accept my disabilities and believe in myself.

I now have also joined “Chosen Ministry” which is a group that works with intellectually disabled adults. I love having other disabled friends. They understand some of the challenges I face. Being a part of “Chosen Ministry” has helped me see my disabilities in a different way. I am grateful to be who I am.

After several years of looking for a job, and many hours of prayer, I got a job in the daycare center which is next door to my church. Knowing that I am helping others is an answer to my prayers. My faith continues to grow as I work with little children and see how they love everyone.

Note: Brittany attends Third Presbyterian Church in Norfolk, VA

Brittany with friend Angela West at the Gifts of the Heart Gala-2018

 

Essay Contest: Blog #3 Colleen Stefanowich

I have known Colleen and her parents through Young Life Capernaum and then The Chosen Ministry for many years and have always appreciated her quick smile and willingness to help.  Colleen is a friend to many, including myself and  my daughter Samantha who has autism.  Whenever we visit Church of the Holy Family‘s Chosen Ministry events and run into Colleen, I can be guaranteed a huge hug and that she will go out of her way to say hello to Samantha, understanding that Samantha cannot respond in kind but accepting and so loving all the same.  

It doesn’t surprise me then, that Colleen is so involved at her church and that she has an incredibly positive attitude. Thank you Colleen for submitting this essay and allowing us learn a bit about you. -K. Jackson

MY INVISIBLE DISABILITY

BY COLLEEN STEFONOWICH

“That is why for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in   persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak I am strong” (2 Cor 12:10)

Growing up with a disability wasn’t easy but having two siblings that I am close to helped even though they couldn’t take it all away. But them listening to me helped me growing up.  I felt bad for them, but I also thought they had it made.  I felt bad for them because they didn’t choose to have a sibling with a disability but they got one anyways. They also had to watch struggle with things that came easy to them. I also had to do things a bit differently than they did growing up. They never treated me any differently because of it.

I thought they had it made because in school, they were able to be in classes with other normal kids. They also got to do some rites of passages in life I never got to do. Things like get their licenses and go to a university.

I have a disability called dyscalculia, which is not a very well known or a very common disability, not very many people have heard of it. Dyscalculia is a math disability, so everything that has to do with math isn’t easy. For example, things like telling time (unless it’s a digital clock), making change, counting money, doing math , reading music. Reading certain numbers will actually overwhelm my brain because it’s way too many numbers, and my brain will   actually shut down because its way too many numbers too look at.

I was recently diagnosed with a vision problem called keratoconus.Basically, that’s just a big fancy word  for cone shaped cornea, which causes major vision problems, and potential blindness. I actually had a procedure done on November 15,2017 to help salvage the vision left in my right eye.

My church family is nothing short of amazing!! I sing in the choir, help with children’s church, and sometimes Sunday school by being a buddy for other students with disabilities. There have been some choir members   who give me rides home from church and practice. I have another choir member who so graciously helps me up and down the stairs from the choir loft for communion. I also have another choir member who has typed up the words to the songs in a bigger font so I am   able to see the words better due to my low vision. They have all done this without anyone asking them to do these things. All of these things have made it possible for me to feel an important part of the choir.

I love my Church of the Holy Family!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Autism Moms and Dads-Interview #4

One of the blessings of being director of Faith Inclusion Network, is being able to reach out to FIN friends around the country and share in our projects. Many thanks to a wonderful FIN friend from New Jersey, Ms. Anne Masters, Director of the Pastoral Ministry with Persons with Disabilities in the Archdiocese of Newark, NJ,  for sharing my request for an interview with autism moms and dads with the families in the Newark Archdiocese. Mr. Tim Craig generously responded to this invitation for an interview. Thank you Tim for being so open and honest. We love to hear from the autism dads and open our arms to another FIN friend in New Jersey! Happy Easter, and thank you for sharing about your beautiful son, Clinton.

Interview #4-Tim Craig

Clinton Craig

Question: How old was your child when they diagnosed with autism? Can you share how you felt when you received that diagnosis?

 Tim: Clinton was about 27 months old when we received the diagnosis of classic autism.  Like many autistic children, he had perfectly normal development until age two (he had around 75 words and played and interacted with other toddlers in our Greenwich Village neighborhood normally). When my wife and I returned from our first trip without him since he was born (a week in Mexico), we noticed that he had stopped using his words, was not making eye contact, and was isolating from other children. In the classic sense that parents blame themselves, I thought he was “punishing” us for leaving him. Our pediatrician sent us to an ear, nose and throat doctor and neurologist, and when everything checked out fine, the neurologist referred us to a psychiatrist.  After visiting with and observing Clinton for about 45 minutes, we came back a week later and received the diagnosis.

To say that we were devastated is a huge understatement.  We knew virtually nothing about the developmental disorder – my wife was in tears the entire night.  We were due to go on a vacation in Vermont, near where we had both gone to college at Dartmouth in Hanover, NH, and I went to the library stacks and read everything I could find about autism.  I joked that I probably spent more time there that weekend then I did as an undergrad!  We were very fortunate in that our psychiatrist knew the author of the book “Let Me Hear Your Voice,” the story of a woman who had two children recovered from autism through intensive behavioral therapy, and, after talking with the author, we immediately started Clinton on a program of behavioral therapy at that early age.

Question: How has living with autism affected your family? (immediate or extended)

Tim: The first immediate affect that Clinton’s diagnosis had was our move to New Jersey (although I continued to work in New York City).  At that time NYC had little to offer in terms of specialized schools for autistic children.  We ended up in Maplewood, New Jersey, and Clinton’s first school was in Montclair, New Jersey.  It also affected our decision not to have more children (my wife comes from a family of eleven kids!), as my wife was 37 by then, and we knew the odds of having another autistic child were increased.  More importantly, we realized that taking care of Clinton was going to be more than enough of a challenge as it was.

In terms of extended family, it was difficult for us that both of our extended families (for the most part) were back in Michigan, 600 miles away.  Many other parents of autistic children had the benefit of extra help from extended family that lived nearby.  However, my wife’s sister who lived in Vermont did visit and help out often, and whenever we went back to Michigan we were able to get a bit of a break. Emotionally, our families offered a lot of valuable support.

Question: What is currently your biggest challenge as an autism dad?

Tim: I feel like our biggest challenges are behind us.  Clinton experienced a lot of problematic behaviors with the onset of adolescence (breaking windows, breaking any glass or ceramic object he could find, self-injurious behaviors and hitting others) that made for some really rough times.  Although every once in a while one of the old behaviors will flare up, he has seems to have mellowed as he has gotten older (I am sure that the medication he has been taking has helped).

Probably the biggest challenge right now is finding things for him to do that interest him; if left alone, he will just “stim” on watching videos (yes, video tapes on a VCR!) or listening to his cassette tapes (yes, on a “Walkman” – we should buy stock in eBay!). He loves to hike in the outdoors, and in the winter he plays on the special needs hockey team the New Jersey Daredevils (have to give a plug to this great organization – Clinton has been with them for over 12 seasons). In the summer he loves swimming in our local pool, although not as much as he used to.  So I would say our biggest challenge is to find things for him to do that he enjoys and that engage him in a positive way.

Question: What is currently your greatest joy as an autism dad?

 Tim: As corny as it may sound, just watching Clinton smile and experience joy.  He has the greatest smile and laugh – they only seem to disappear when a camera is pointed his way!  I am also so proud of him when he is able to order for himself at a restaurant (his speech is very hard to understand – it’s frustrating for me and his mom, because we know what he is saying, but others just cannot pick up on it most of the time), or say the Lord’s Prayer at Mass.  Really my greatest joy is just getting to spend time with him – when I was working at a law firm or for a corporation in the city, I really did not have that much time to spend with him and I really regretted that.  Now I feel like I am much more of a part of his life, and I would not trade that for anything in the world.

Question: Has autism affected your faith? If yes, how so?

Tim: Autism has made me more humble and grateful for all of God’s gifts.  Our church has been so welcoming to Clinton – they have accepted him as he is, as one of God’s children.  Two of my proudest moments as a dad have been when Clinton received his First Communion and Confirmation, and that would not have been possible without the kindness, acceptance and understanding of our church (St. Joseph’s of Maplewood).  So often people have come up to me after Mass and praised me for being such a great father, just by observing me with Clinton during the service (he likes to sit right up front, in front of the choir and organ!).  It always embarrasses me, and I tell them I am just doing what any father would do.

So yes, autism has deepened my faith and given me more reason to give Him glory and praise.  Tomorrow is Easter Sunday, and I look forward to celebrating this joyous day with Clinton, the greatest joy of my life (along with my wife – she might read this!).

Question: Is there anything else you would like to share about being an autism dad?

Tim: Being an autism dad has been a challenge, but it has paled in comparison to the challenge(s) my wife has faced. After Clinton’s diagnosis, she switched careers, and received her teaching certificate in behavior analysis, and for the last several years has worked in early intervention with the Douglass Developmental Disabilities Program through Rutgers, going into the homes of 2-year olds and using the same behavior modification techniques that helped our son.  So it has been autism 24/7 for her for quite some time, which is a really tough road to travel.

While our son is not one of the lucky few who were completely “recovered” from the disorder, and he will always need assistance and constant supervision in living on a day-to-day basis, it has been wonderfully rewarding to see his progress and to watch him grow into a young man.

In this Autism Awareness Month, I pray that we will someday find a cause, and eventually a cure, for this disorder.  In the meantime, I will continue to try to be the best “autism dad” I can be for Clinton.

 

 

Welcoming the Visitor

As I walked out of St. John Chrysostom, a Catholic Church in the Philadelphia area, I was filled with the warmth of acceptance and belonging. How does that happen after one visit to a church? Let me explain…
Since my position leading Faith Inclusion Network began, I have learned about and experienced everything from the most inclusive of faith communities to the most unwelcoming and exclusive. I am sensitive to the efforts faith communities make to include people like my daughter who have disabilities and always grateful when someone, either from my home church or in another place of worship, welcomes us.
This past Sunday, my family and I attended Easter Sunday Mass at St. John Chrysostom Catholic Church in Wallingford, PA. http://sjcparish.org/ we were visiting our oldest at Swarthmore College and wanted to attend Mass as a family for Easter. Easy enough, right?

st-john-chrysostom-church
Well, maybe not. Because being in a new, crowded place is not always best for Samantha, who has autism. I had reason to be optimistic that our experience would be positive however.
First, we had already been to worship many times in our home church with success. The Mass is the same everywhere, which works in our favor, for sure.
We had also attended a different church the previous year when on a similar trip. The ushers were welcoming and even helped us find the perfect seat for Samantha, assuring us that she would be fine. –(Easter Sunday, 2015 at St. Madeline’s Church http://www.stmadelineparish.com/ .)
But I was particularly excited about this worship opportunity because I had encountered St. John’s online before we left Norfolk. A brief glance at their website and I was convinced I wanted to go.
First of all, they had received the 2015 Loyola Press Opening Doors Award from the NCPD. This award is “given to a parish that is doing exceptional work in facilitating meaningful participation of Catholic with disabilities.” http://www.ncpd.org/ and without even attending a Mass, I could see some of the reasons why they had been given this special recognition. The regular schedule of Masses included a “Mass of Welcoming and Inclusion” on the first Sunday of every month. ASL interpreters were also regularly scheduled.
Reading further, I noticed Disability Ministry activities, one with a special speaker and the other, a community project. Things were looking promising here.
We got to St. John’s at 9:05 am for a 9:30 am Mass and watched as people started filing into the sanctuary. A notable amount of families with young children were there, restless, even crying children could be heard all around. Many people smiled and warmly welcomed us with their expressions, observing, I’m sure, Samantha’s somewhat unusual behavior of looking straight up at the ceiling at the lights for minutes at a time. I observed only smiles of welcome.
I glanced in my pew and found a blue paper. The message included comforting words to the parents of young children (and an inferred message to parents of children with special needs, I thought as well). The notice expressed something about God putting the “wiggle” in your children, and do not be worried if they express this during the Mass. Again, the ASL Interpretation was noted as well as a statement about greeting and accepting all of the congregants, regardless of age and amount of “wiggleness” (my word not theirs) with acceptance and understanding.
It is no wonder that St. John’s was filled to capacity, the pastor even guessing that, with standing room only they probably had 900 people in church. Pastor Hallinan’s exclamation to this observation-“Alleluia and Praise Jesus!”-made us all smile.
When the Mass was over, we filed out with everyone else and my heart was full. We were anonymous at this church, no one knew us or anything about my advocacy work as Director of FIN. But I felt that we, as a family who experience disability, were welcomed and even belonged there.
The good news is that there are faith communities all over Hampton Roads who are making similar efforts to welcome and include all. One of the lessons I take away from this visit to St. John’s though, is that the efforts were obvious, even to the one time visitor. Information online made it clear that this is a place that cares about including everyone…and my family’s experience bore witness to this.
As we continue to do our work in the Hampton Roads area; developing disability ministry efforts, holding FIN events and all the other fabulous work being done here, let’s also keep in mind that we need to make our efforts known and obvious. Share what you are doing online, on social media and with our community at large. You never know who is passing through and will be encouraged and comforted by your efforts.
God bless.
K. Jackson

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Samantha, Karen, Jacob and Joseph Jackson (Dad, Scott taking the photo) after Easter Mass, 2016

It’s All About Attitude

Over the last few years, it has been well stated by advocates of the faith and disability community that significant barriers can and do exist in faith communities.  The barriers not only make it difficult for persons with disabilities to be included but result in unwelcoming and inaccessible places of worship. “If there are barriers of attitude, communication or architecture for anyone, the foundation of the House of God is weakened.”-That All May Worship, An Interfaith Welcome to People with Disabilities, page 5, http://www.aapd.com/what-we-do/interfaith/that-all-may-worship/that-all-may-worship.pdf .

Architectural barriers, such as limited or non-existent wheelchair accessibility are obvious.  If one cannot get into a building or does not have access to certain parts of a building, the message is clear: “You are not welcome”.  But physical barriers can be less obvious as well.  A church might have a ramp to the front door but the door is very heavy and difficult to open.  Although a greeter may be assigned during regular service times, what about small meetings during the weekday?  An inaccessible door like this could still be a barrier, communicating to the person using a wheelchair: “You are welcome to our worship service but we don’t necessarily want or even recognize your desire to participate in other activities or ministries of our community.”  An automatic door might be a solution here-giving independent access to the building.

Barriers of communication are also obvious but often overlooked.  These include providing alternative forms of communicating such as an ASL Interpreter, a Looping System, C.A.R.T. (Communication Access in Real-time Translation), large print materials or Braille materials.  If a person has a condition that affects their sight or hearing, they will need these kinds of accommodations.  Important to note; if your place of worship does not have these accommodations in place, a person needing them will not usually visit. The stance, “We don’t have anyone with these kinds of disabilities here so we don’t need to provide accommodations” therefore, is useless and most uninviting.

It is also worth considering communication accommodations for persons with developmental or intellectual disabilities.  Using visuals (for example providing a picture schedule for the order of the service) would be a way to bridge the communication gap with people who might find it difficult to follow along without visual cues.

But when it comes to barriers, attitude is by far the most difficult for congregations to address.  The attitude of people in the congregation, the governing body of the faith community and the administration can directly influence how a person or family affected by disability feels when coming to a place of worship.  The examples are endless, but let’s look at one:

A family with a young child with autism visits a church for the first time.  The family is cautious, feeling a bit awkward because, 1. They know their 8 year old has some typical autistic behaviors that make it a challenge to stay confined for a full hour service and 2. They have had bad experiences in the past trying to make worship work.

But they are here, at your church, trying again.

All seems to go well until about 15 minutes into the service when the child who has autism starts up, wiggling and laughing too loud, finally belting out a loud “ahhhhh…” in response to an unknown stimuli.

Other members of the congregation turn around and stare.  One mother, sitting with three well behaved children, rolls her eyes and whispers to her husband.

The family, now mortified, gets up and leaves…and they don’t come back.

Before you think, “This would never happen in my place of worship”, think again.  Research out of Vanderbilt University concluded that 70% of parents of children with disabilities would find disability awareness efforts, over any other accommodations, the most helpful.  As stated in Welcoming People with Developmental Disabilities and their Families: A Practical Guide for Congregations, written by Erik Carter, Courtney Taylor, Thomas Boehm, Naomi Annandale, and Aimee Logeman,

“Parents considered congregation-wide disability awareness to be among the most helpful efforts faith communities could undertake. Why is it so important to foster awareness and understanding of disability? Often, the biggest barrier people with disabilities and their families encounter are not inaccessible stairs, but unwelcoming stares.” http://vkc.mc.vanderbilt.edu/assets/files/resources/CongregationPracticeGuide.pdf

When it comes to barriers however, I offer up the following: Attitude is the only real barrier to full inclusion. Let me explain with an example.

A FIN friend of mine who lost her hearing as an adult and was looking for a place to worship.  She wanted to attend a large local church but needed some accommodations.  So my friend contacted the church, asking if they might provide C.A.R.T. for just two services per month.  (Communication in Real-time Translation-someone types what is being said in real time and this is projected on a screen).

The response from the church was almost immediate: “We asked our pastor and administration about this request and we are sorry that we cannot provide this type of accommodation at this time.  The cost is prohibitive since it is only needed for one person.”

Although the barrier to participation in worship here is clearly one of communication, the overlying barrier is one of attitude.  Because of the quick response, it was obvious that this request did not go beyond the front office.  There was no offer to meet with my friend, bring this suggestion to the governing body of the church for discussion or even investigate possible ways to make raise funds.  Because she was just one person making the request, the church administration did not see the need to further consider the use of C.A.R.T. or consider ways to provide this needed accommodation.

This attitude barrier could apply in any situation where funding is needed for making buildings or worship services more accessible.  A few people from a large, wealthy church in our area advocated for over a year to provide funds for an elevator to the second floor.  Although the worship services all take place on the ground level, the second floor remained off limits to a teenage who uses a wheelchair and wanted to be a part of the youth group class.  Although the church (and good for them!) temporarily moved the class to the one small available classroom on the first floor, it made the teen feel bad.  He did not want the whole class moved just for him-all the other children where upstairs in the more spacious classrooms.

Happily, the advocacy work, combined with an open and accepting attitude prevailed and a much needed elevator was eventually built.  With some education and awareness, the attitude of the congregation changed and funds were allocated for the project.  Several months after the elevator was installed, another family with a child who uses a wheelchair joined the church.  Imagine that!

All in all, my experience through FIN is that attitudes are changing and faith communities are moving toward positive inclusive efforts.  In our own local Hampton Roads community, more and more places of worship are beginning disability ministry efforts and programs.  In September and October alone, I and other members of the FIN Board of Directors have given presentations for six different faith communities and organizations, sharing ideas for inclusion and the mission of FIN-“to better include people with disabilities into faith communities.”  Barriers are being knocked down and attitudes are changing. Is your faith community ready to embrace an attitude of inclusion?  Let us know how we can help.  Join FIN and the faith and disabilities movement and get involved!

 

To reprint this article for distribution in your faith community or to request a presentation, contact Karen Jackson at faithinclusionnetwork@gmail.com

FIN Presentation Topics

 

1. “It’s All About Attitude!”- Introduction to disability inclusion in faith communities

2. “Inclusion 101”-Ideas for inclusion into religious education

3.  Disability Awareness presentations for children and teens

4. Contact us to customize a presentation that would meet the needs of your faith community