If I’m honest, when I first became a ministry leader, planning events and programs with people with special needs in mind was not on my radar. I’ll never forget one of my first fun events that I planned as an RA at Gordon College for my hall. It was an ice skating night with our sister floor and everyone was pretty excited about it. But that’s why it’s not vividly etched in my memory.
I came skating around the curve when my eyes locked on one of the guys from my floor. He had a physical disability that limited his mobility; it affected one side of his body. He could walk and get around, but ice skates were out of the question. And so, there he was, sitting on the sidelines watching all of us – he wanted to be involved, to be a part of things, and so he had come, and by virtue of my planning, he was stuck outside the rink while we were all on it. I remember thinking, ‘he’s so close, but so far.’
I felt like the biggest jerk ever.
Here’s the reality. My assumption was that planning events or activities that could involve everyone, including people with special needs, were just too hard to do. My assumption was that activities that would work just wouldn’t be interesting enough for anyone else, and would require more time and resources than I had to work with.
My assumptions were ignorant and wrong.
That night, after the ice skating event, I went back to the guy from my floor and apologized. I couldn’t believe it hadn’t occurred to me to consider him in my planning process. And then I did the thing I should have done before – I asked him what kinds of events we could do that he could participate in. It wasn’t awkward – he wanted to be fully involved and I wanted to involve everyone, my asking enabled that to happen. And he gave me an awesome list – and contrary to my assumptions, it was all just as easy to plan as the skating night had been.
I’ve had similar conversations with different teens and parents over the years. The truth is, there are usually enough fun and easy event ideas and activities that no one realizes that the event calendar is intentionally being inclusive – and no one is left on the outside looking in. If you’re a youth leader with kids with needs in your group, those kinds of conversations have to happen – there are so many other places in the world they are going to feel left out or excluded, the church shouldn’t be on the list.