UT Study: Special Needs Families Unwelcome in Church

KNOXVILLE — Many churches and other places of worship routinely fail to welcome children with disabilities or to meet the needs of their families, a University of Tennessee researcher has found.

Parents who sought religious education for their special-needs children were met with responses ranging from a general lack of acceptance to an outright refusal to provide for the family’s needs, said Susan Speraw, an associate professor in the UT College of Nursing, who conducted a qualitative study titled “Nurturing Faith.”

“Lack of welcoming was associated with profound disappointment, disillusionment, and sometimes crises of faith for parents who felt alienated from religious sources of support,” Speraw said. “On the other hand, people whose children were welcomed felt a sense of community and a strengthened faith.”

The study, conducted between January and May 2005, interviewed parents of children with special needs. The congregations mentioned by parents in the study were located primarily in communities in East Tennessee, from the Virginia border to the Georgia border and as far west as the suburbs of Nashville, Speraw said, but the parents also discussed their experiences in other states.

The children suffered from conditions ranging from autism and cerebral palsy to mental illness and mental retardation.

“Faith was a cornerstone in the lives of these parents and families, and transmitting faith to their children was a central goal of every parent,” Speraw said.

The study found that an overwhelming majority of parents reported negative experiences with the congregations they visited. Speraw said the parents actively advocated for their children, even teaching religious education classes themselves or offering to provide a support person, but received little accommodation from the churches.

“Sometimes early negative experiences resolved with a change of pastor, rabbi, or teacher, but at other times such personnel changes made the situation worse,” she said.

Speraw found that parents in the study had tried to find a church they could call home in many different faith traditions. The congregations included Roman Catholic and mainline Protestant denominations — Baptist, Methodist, and Presbyterian — as well as smaller Christian churches — Church of Christ, African Methodist Episcopal, and Holiness.

Jewish, nondenominational Christian and the Orthodox Church in America also were represented, as were traditionally liberal churches like Quaker and Unitarian Universalist.

“No one faith or denomination was reported to have consistently provided an accepting environment,” she said.

The churches that welcomed children with special needs provided a religious setting in which parents were supported emotionally and through prayer, were nurtured and given respite, and were allowed to pray without the demands of being with their children throughout the church service, Speraw said.

These welcoming faith communities provided a place where all were equally welcome. Clergy, lay leadership and teachers were seen as accessible and committed to accommodation.

“Most of all, the welcoming churches recognized and valued the spiritual connection that the child had with God and provided a place where family members could worship together,” she said.

The study results were presented at a health research conference in the Netherlands in May and will be published in an upcoming issue of the journal “Issues In Mental Health Nursing.”