We all want a place to belong, a place where we can be our true selves, relax, and be loved unconditionally. Often, for those affected by disability, it’s hard to find that comfortable and comforting place. InterVarsity groups can be that place.
My passion is for students with disabilities to know God’s love for them, that God has a plan and purpose for their lives and works through them and their disability to encourage the growth of faith in others. They are an important part of the Body of Christ and we all lose out if they aren't in our chapters and using their spiritual gifts alongside us.
I am eager to see our InterVarsity groups become places where students with disabilities can be real and talk about the joys and struggles in their lives, just like everyone else.
These nine practical tips1 will help your chapter become a more welcoming and disability-friendly community.
1) Provide a warm, friendly, welcoming environment.
Greet people with disabilities as you would anybody else. Communicate, in words and actions, that people affected by disability are loved, belong and included in your InterVarsity group.
2) Provide basic disability awareness training for staff and student leaders.
Review basic disability etiquette. Obtain disability resources or invite a Joni and Friends representative or other disability resource person to do a training session.
3) Improve accessibility. Make modifications where necessary.
Imagine yourself in a wheelchair or having a difficult time with mobility and make changes as needed. If necessary, modify the access to the main entrance at a large group or small group event, or move to a new location.
4) Provide serving opportunities for people with disabilities.
God gives all his children spiritual gifts. Include people with disabilities in all areas as you learn their strengths and spiritual gifts, just as you do with all students.
5) Provide disability-friendly materials as needed.
For example, have large print or Braille Bibles available and print song sheets for those who are visually impaired. Or consider providing assistive listening devices for the hearing impaired.
6) Provide space in large group gatherings for wheelchair users.
Shorten a few rows or take some chairs away so wheelchair users can sit with their friends.
7) Provide a sign interpreter for people who are deaf or hard of hearing.
8) Provide a mentor/friend for those who might need assistance.
Someone can offer assistance during meeting times, as well as helping a student with disabilities get across campus if needed.
9) General communication and interaction tips.
Treat people with disabilities as you would anyone else. Be relaxed. Don’t get caught up with fancy terms such as “physically challenged” or “differently-abled.” In speech and in writing, put the person first, not the disability.
By applying these nine tips, your chapter can welcome students with disabilities into the life-giving transformation Jesus offers each person in your campus community.
If you have a vision for starting something new among students with disabilities, check out the Bible Studies on Belonging. These studies are written specifically for those who are navigating campus life with a disability.
--by Deb Abbs
Read more from Deb Abbs about what she learned from her son with a disability in the blog post, Life with Luke.
1Used with permission. Adapted from “Ten Practical Tips for Becoming a Disability Friendly Church” (pp. 164-165) from Beyond Suffering: A Christian View on Disability Ministry Study Guide, by Joni Eareckson Tada and Steve Bundy, with Pat Verbal, © 2011. All rights reserved by Joni and Friends. International copyright secured.