A Lesson from Sesame Street
In 1969 Sesame Street introduced a cast of everyday neighbors to carry minor plotlines as teaching tools for millions of American preschoolers. The groundbreaking children’s television series demonstrated how people with disabilities and other differences were a common presence in the everyday lives of the show’s other characters. The beloved muppets — and the children at home — met Linda the librarian, who was deaf* and used ASL to communicate, as well as a child named Tarah, who was a wheelchair user. These characters helped the young viewers appreciate the differences and similarities of their own disabled friends and neighbors.
More than forty years after Sesame Street’s inception, our everyday culture is still evolving in its understanding and inclusion of disabled individuals. Laws require public schools to support children and families through the development of individualized education plans and 504 documents, but helping families of disabled children find their place among their typically developing peers remains a challenge. As many parents of disabled children will tell you, invitations to play dates and birthday parties with typical children are rare and highly valued. Unfortunately, churches can be yet another forum for disappointment for these families.
Churches Encounter Disability
With 19% of Americans currently classified as having a disability (U.S. Census Bureau), churches are increasingly encountering requests for accommodations, both for children and adults. The good news is that many rise to the occasion — making modifications to their spaces, undergoing trainings, and finding innovative ways to welcome disabled people into their community — but these churches tend to be few and far between. Overall, churches are societal stragglers for successful inclusion. It’s important, then, to recognize that offering support and inclusion isn’t just a trend; doing so is part of living into our faith in Christ.
The following quotes provide tremendous insight into how much families desire their church communities’ support when first navigating a child’s diagnosis and throughout their live. These quotes are largely representative of the sentiments expressed by the dozens of parents I have interviewed in course of writing about how churches can support disabled children and their families:
- Texas mother of an autistic preschooler:
- “After our son’s autism diagnosis, I struggled for a time with bitterness toward our church family for their lack of response. I wanted to talk about what we were processing. I think people didn’t know what to say and so they mostly remained silent. “
- “My desire was for our friends to accept and love my child for who he is. I wanted them to see him as a unique creation, treasured by God.”
- “Another couple in our congregation with an older, similarly diagnosed child sought us out after our child’s diagnosis. Their offered words of hope and encouragement were invaluable to us.”
- “Everyone had an acquaintance with a child with autism. So they felt what they knew about that child automatically applied to my newly-diagnosed son. And so many people had an opinion on what causes autism. I only wanted guidance from professionals. I simply needed empathy and listening ears from my church friends.”
- Georgia mother of an adult child with Cerebral Palsy:
- “Many people offer to help. Most mean well but they don’t think you’ll take them up on the offer. I learned that people who inquired for a way to help a second time were usually sincere. The ones that suggested assistance options (babysitting or a meal) could be counted on to follow through. “
- “I was constantly offered well-meaning but unasked for advice from people who weren’t educated professionals. And many people followed up their advice with the question ‘have you prayed?’ Of course I had prayed!”
- “A painful moment for our child came in school when another child from our church shunned her for her disability.”
- “One of the greatest gestures and gifts our church offered was providing an annual picnic for the families of children with special needs.”
- Alabama mother of a preschooler with Down syndrome:
- “Our son’s Sunday school teachers and special needs buddy have been great about treating him like all the other children. They see him as a child and not a diagnosis.”
- Georgia mother of three disabled children, with diagnoses including Down syndrome, Apraxia, and Auditory Processing Disorder:
- “We left our church after our son with Down syndrome was born. The nursery workers were so afraid of him.”
- “Women from my weekly Bible study group have mentioned in passing that they would assist me if I ever asked. I treasure my fellowship with these precious women and I sense they do pray for me. However none have ever offered an act of service or invited dialogue where I could share a specific request for help.”
* Many d/Deaf individuals do not consider themselves to be disabled, but rather class themselves as a cultural group with a particular language. Despite this community perception, hearing loss is frequently included, and requires consideration, in conversations about access and disability.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on November 18, 2010. It has been revised and updated on December 13, 2023 to correct grammatical and punctuation errors and to use the most widely preferred and non-stigmatizing language for disabilities to date in keeping with our style guide for discussing disability and related topics. Some recommendations may also have been modified in keeping with best practices for accessibility and inclusion. Please note that the U.S. Census Bureau data in 2019 indicated that about 20% of Americans were classified as having a disability.