August 20 Designated Disability Awareness Sunday

Three years ago, Hannah didn’t want to attend the Georgia Special Touch GetAway for people with disabilities, but her father made go anyway. Hannah’s condition, spastic cerebral palsy, makes arm and leg movements awkward, and the teenager’s anger and bitterness about it was obvious. “She left seemingly untouched at the end of the week, in spite of the love and care our staff and volunteers showed her,” says U.S. missionary Joe Trementozzi, who coordinates the event.

Surprisingly, Hannah returned last year. She seemed a little more open, but again left camp without really opening her heart to Christ. Camp workers continued to pray, and she was back this year. On Tuesday evening of camp week, pretty nineteen-year-old Hannah accepted Jesus! “It finally clicked with her,” says Joe, “that the author and finisher of our faith really does love her!” Camp speakers focus on communicating just how precious each camper is to Jesus. And regardless of our physical limitations, we all have the same need—to hear that Jesus loves us and died to set us free from sin.

Joe says the difference in Hannah was immediate, with anger replaced by joy and peace. After two years of barely participating in the fun of camp, on Wednesday morning she was harnessed into the giant swing. Soaring through a sixty-foot drop and out over the trees overlooking the lake, Hannah was radiant. With each backswing, staff members cheered!

Like any new believer, Hannah needs to grow in her faith through Bible study and Christian fellowship as she returns home. That isn’t always easy, though. About one in five Americans live with a physical or intellectual disability that affects their participation in major life activities. For these individuals and their families, attending church can be a huge undertaking. Some are afraid they won’t fit in, or their disability will make them the target of staring eyes. Some people have trouble physically accessing church facilities, and have decided it’s easier to worship at home.  Whatever the reason, about eighty percent of people affected by disability just don’t go to church, and have no regular exposure to the gospel or Christian fellowship.

To help churches realize the need to reach out to those people, the Assemblies of God has designated August 20, 2017, as Disability Awareness Day.

Ministry to persons with disabilities is a part of the Intercultural Ministries department of U.S. Missions. Several ministries focus on providing opportunities for those with disabilities and their families. They also encourage churches to do the same.

Special Touch started in 1982 by U.S. missionaries Charlie and Debbie Chivers, is one of those ministries. Special Touch has grown to include several more missionaries and associates. Some, like the Trementozzis, became involved because of a personal or family situation. As part of its ministry, Special Touch hosts summer “GetAways” throughout the United States. At a GetAway, campers with physical or intellectual disabilities connect with God and other believers in a relaxing outdoor setting. Some of them, like Hannah, decide to follow Christ after hearing at camp how much He loves them. The camps depend on volunteers to make sure each camper has a special buddy for the week, and some volunteers enjoy the experience so much they return each year.

U.S. missionary Joe Butler says churches are often hesitant to address the topic of disabilities because people tend to fear the unknown. He understands this feeling. When his son Micah, now a teenager, was diagnosed with disabilities soon after birth, he and his wife had no idea what to expect. “We didn’t know exactly what to do, but we just loved our son and got to know him,” he says. “The church can learn to do that too.”

Joe emphasizes to churches that it’s not so much about starting a separate special needs ministry, but rather adjusting your current philosophy of ministry to include these individuals and families. This can be done, he says, by looking at three areas: place, people, and programs. “Place” means your facilities—are things like the parking, foyer, or restrooms accessible? “People” involves helping your congregation feel comfortable welcoming those with disabilities. “Programs” can be simple tweaks in what you’re already doing, to make it inclusive—things like large print copies of materials, adjustments in the lighting, or more sensory-friendly classrooms. Changes don’t have to be expensive, but they will go a long way in saying “Welcome” to a visiting family, rather than “We don’t know how to accommodate you.”

The Butlers’ ministry, Ability Tree, offers respite nights and sensory-friendly activities. The respite nights not only give parents a night out, but also include activities just for siblings. Other children can feel overlooked when parental energy is necessarily directed toward the child with special needs. Such ministry to the entire family is one way churches can show they care.

To learn more about disabilities ministry in U.S. Missions, find materials, or volunteer, visit http://intercultural.ag.org/ministries/. You can donate to disabilities ministry by visiting AG Giving. Check out Disability Friendly Certification for your church. For information and step-by-step assistance, visit http://www.specialtouch.org/dfcinfo


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