As someone with a disability myself, and who also knows what it means to parent a child with multiple disabilities, I've become an advocate for my children on so many fronts. Religious education and involvement is no different. Indeed, because religious organizations are exempt from the Americans with Disabilities Act, it can be a process. After all, when it comes to disability and inclusion issues, despite good intentions, many religious institutions don't even know what they don't know.
So, it is up to people with disabilities, and the people who love them, to educate and advocate for people with disabilities in religious life. This is especially true in the context of enabling children with disabilities to have full access to religious education.
In all likelihood, your child with special needs either goes to public school or a private school specifically designed to serve children with disabilities. Their teams are (or should be) steeped in knowledge around accommodations, IEPs, differentiated learning. That is generally not the case in most religious schools, so there is a learning curve. Thus, while I had my own ideas, I also reached out to faith-inclusion experts Rev. Bill Gaventa and White House recognized Dilshad D. Ali for ideas. Between us and some online research, here are some tips for success that we hope will help you in your journey:
1. Know you are not alone. Fully 1-in-5 Americans has a disability. So while parenting a child with special needs feels lonely at first, seek out other families with similar experiences and you will find them. They can offer good advice, and may become your new best friends.
2. Find out if there is a congregation in your area with real experience and success in working with children like yours. Call your local religious or disability groups to see what resources and leads they can offer. Ask other parents of children with disabilities about their experiences with different congregations.
Go online look at the congregations' website. Does it say they welcome and serve people with disabilities or not? Interview the clergy and the heads of the religious schools in your area. Attend a congregation that really wants to serve children with disabilities -- and is prepared to do so.
If your house of worship or religious school doesn't have anything set up to accommodate/include those with disabilities, look to other faith communities. Often, the supports put in place are universal ones that can be adapted to your own faith community. As the mantra goes, "beg, borrow and steal" ideas.
If you already belong to a congregation/school that you like, and they don't currently serve children with disabilities, ask them if they are ready to learn to do it right. If so, you can refer them to the free tools here and here and resources through the National Collaborative on Faith and Disability, and, while there, click on Tennessee under the Partners to access a number of excellent resources for initiating inclusive faith supports. Also, search online for resources from national faith networks which may represent your tradition.
While doing your research and if your religious school is open to ideas, get together with other families and individuals with special needs and write a wish list of everything they need to make their experiences better. Prioritize the list and go from there.
3. Write an "all about how to succeed with my kid" letter. Yes, you should also prepare a file with your child's Individualize Education Plan (IEP) and suggestions for success from any speech, physical, occupational, mental health or other therapists that work with your child. But don't expect a religious school teacher to be knowledgeable enough to understand that material.
Your letter should be easy to read and follow -- a toolkit for working with your child. Put things into simple language with bullets of information that the school needs to know to make your child's experience safe and successful. Remember, as a parent, you have unique insights about your child that can help your child's teacher understand his/her strengths and needs. Your candor, experience and advice will be much appreciated.
Depending on the age of your child, you may want to invite your child to give you ideas on what you should express in your memo to the teaching team. Check with your school team to see the teacher or others might be willing to provide some guidance to the team at your religious school.
4. Request a meeting with your child's teacher and team. Don't make the mistake of thinking that just because it is a religious school that you can skip this process. Yes, you and they are busy. However, if you miss out on doing a real substantive conversation, you may create a situation that will turn your child off to religion.
Additionally, it is not enough to meet with the principal of the school or the clergy. You need to sit face-to-face with the actual person who will be in the classroom with your child, as well as the school leaders who support that teacher. Invite the clergy to the meeting as well. If needed, bring your child's therapists. Depending on the age of your child, you may want to bring them to this meeting. Part of this meeting should also be about why being able to come as a family to your congregation is important to all of you.
In advance of the meeting, you should send your letter about your child to all the meeting participants. Bring copies of it to the meeting as well, and have your "elevator pitch" about your child ready to go. You may want to practice it in front of someone in advance. It is important to get your points across quickly so they can ask questions. Teachers will really appreciate your efforts, resources and transparency.
Once the teachers learn about your child, the school may want to put an extra aid in the classroom to support your child's needs. Alternatively, they may want to match your child with a different teacher who is more experienced. If so, do your "elevator pitch" and Q&A with that teacher as well. The congregational school may benefit from having your child's occupational or physical therapist meet with them, or join the class for a day, to give the teacher some tips.
Still, painful though it may be, you need to leave room for them to say that they cannot meet your child's needs and you need to look elsewhere. It is much better to switch congregations or religious schools, or move to a different sort of engagement, than to put your child in a place that isn't safe and supportive.
In advance, consider what suggestions you may want to give when and if they bring up things like they don't know enough, or they cannot accommodate all of your child's needs or they don't have the resources to provide extra support. Figure out ahead of time what are your non-negotiables, and what you can work with them on.
5. Ask about the teacher and team's preferred method of communication. Mutual respect and trust are important to all relationships. This includes the relationship you want to cultivate with your child's teacher and the clergy in your congregation. That's why it's important to find out which method of communication suits them the best. Many will prefer emails.
6. Be fully honest with the team. If your child has tantrums, be sure they understand the triggers that cause them and what will generally prevent them. If your child needs a head's up before a transition, or has a behavior, tick or expression that they use that indicates your child is anxious, the team needs to know that so they can best serve your child. This is not the time to worry about privacy - you need to focus on safety and success.
7. Be upbeat. Teachers want proactive parents. A positive relationship with your child's teacher will help your child feel good about the experience. Work with them from your belief in their gifts and capacity, because they are the religious education teachers. You can help them find answers to the disability questions, but they are the religion teachers. But before you hit "send," look over your messages and make sure they're respectful of the teacher's time and also of their efforts to help your child.
It's great for you to ask questions and make suggestions as long as your messages convey your trust that the teacher is performing her job ethically and responsibly. You want to be their partner. Stress your willingness to help them find answers to questions that they may have. Remember that the teacher is a person first. Send thank you notes, volunteer, let them know when your child really enjoyed a particular lesson, and try to be considerate of their schedule; teachers have families too.
And, knowing how much responsibility the teacher shoulders, pick your battles. Be willing to meet the teachers on what they need from you.
8. Share your enthusiasm for religion with your child. Talk with your child about they will be learning during the year, and why it is important to you. Celebrate religious holidays at home and show that it matters to YOU as well. Walk the walk. Let your child know that you have confidence in their ability to master the content, and that you believe it will be a positive part of their life.
Reinforce the natural progression of the learning process that occurs over the school year. Learning skills take time and repetition. Encourage your child to be patient, attentive, and positive. Not to mention to enjoy your relationship with God and your spiritual community!
9. Slow down and take the time to do it right. Transitions are often difficult for children with disabilities. Moses didn't get to the Promised Land overnight. There will be a few bumps in the road. Your child will have a successful year at school in spite of them. As we move into the first few weeks of school, stay calm and positive. Remember to take care of yourself. Know your limitations, and don't be afraid to ask for help. Make sure your child has enough sleep, plenty of time to get up, eat breakfast, and get to school.
10. Familiarize yourself with the other professionals in your school or house of worship. Make an effort to find out who it is in the congregation who can be a resource for you and your child. Learn their roles and how best to access their help if you need them. This can include the principal, cleaning and kitchen crew, front office personnel, clergy and lay leaders who may work with kids with disabilities in their professional jobs.
11. Reinforce your child's ability to cope. Give your child a few strategies to manage a difficult situation on his or her own. But encourage your child to tell you or the teacher if the problem persists. Maintain open lines of communication with the school.
12. Help your child make at least one real friend there. Talk with the teachers about other children who may have the same interests as your child. See if they can institute a peer-buddy. Arrange play dates. Try to arrange get-togethers with some of your child's classmates during the first weeks of school to help your child establish positive social relationships with peers. Go to holiday and religious events with other children and help facilitate actual friendships for your child.
If different people than the religious school lead the social events at your congregation, make sure they also know how to succeed with your child. Parents of other children with and without disabilities who are friends with your child can become your new best friends as well.
13. Listen to Your Child's Feelings. When your child shows any anxiety about going back to school or going to religious events or institutions, the worst thing you can do is brush it off with a "don't worry about it" response. Listen and be responsive to your own child and empower them to advocate for themselves as well. Show them your love. Sometimes you need to take a little step back in order to move forward.
14. Enjoy their childhood. It goes way too fast!
More resources can be found here.