VKC providing national leadership in the area of disabilities, religion, and inclusive spiritual supports

Photo of young adult with Down syndrome lighting candle

From assisting congregations to connect members with disabilities to jobs to coordinating a national webinar series on how to honor spiritual needs, the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center (VKC) continues to address the issue of inclusion and belonging in faith communities.

The VKC is providing key leadership in the development and administration of the National Collaborative on Faith and Disability (NCFD), a partnership of 14 University Centers for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities (UCEDD). Recognizing the crucial role that spirituality and congregational supports play in the lives of many people with disabilities and their families, the NCFD was formed to coordinate the growing efforts of UCCEDs already working with faith networks, service systems, and communities and to facilitate new and innovative collaborative projects.

“For many people with disabilities and their families, faith communities can be a powerful source of natural community support and connection, as well as a doorway to other important outcomes in areas of relationships, work, community living, recreation, and service,” said Bill Gaventa, M.Div., NCFD director. “For many others, however, their faith community has not played this role. Barriers of attitude, awareness, and accessibility remain prominent in many congregations. There is a clear need for coordinated and concerted efforts to support people with disabilities and their families in this dimension of their lives and to better equip service systems to draw on natural partners in the community. The Collaborative on Faith and Disability seeks to encourage forward movement in this area.”

Putting Faith To Work

The Putting Faith To Work (PFTW) project is a collaboration between four NCFD partners (Tennessee, Kentucky, Minnesota, and Texas), and is made possible by a Signature Employment Grant from the Kessler Foundation. The project aims to build capacity and support communities of faith to serve their members with disabilities who are seeking employment and career advancement. Directed by Erik Carter, Ph.D., associate professor of Special Education and a VKC investigator, the project currently is serving 45 individuals with disabilities in 26 congregations across the four states.

“Our model carefully integrates ‘discovery’ approaches, natural supports, and customized employment features and delivers them through faith networks,” said Carter. “But it also builds upon scriptural understandings of the dignity of work, stewardship of one’s talents or gifts, and the responsibility of the community to support those ‘on the margins.’ We are convinced that we must work both within and beyond the formal service system if we’re going to fundamentally change the employment landscape for Americans with disabilities.”

In Tennessee, PFTW is currently working with seven congregations. The process has involved developing project teams, supporting the teams in identifying interested members with disabilities, holding person-centered planning meetings to identify interests and strengths, brainstorming ways of making connections with potential employers through networking within the faith communities, and providing assistance in connecting with on-the-job supports.

“We were excited to join Putting Faith to Work because we felt it would be a unique opportunity to get to more fully know some of our adults with disabilities and to have them known within the congregation,” said Gigi Sanders, Special Needs Ministry Coordinator at Christ Presbyterian Church in Nashville. “And everything is going very well. We have had two person-centered care meetings with two of our young ladies. Both evenings were treasured times, as we heard from a variety of family members and friends who know and love each woman. We are excited to see what God will continue to show us and what possible work connections may happen for these amazing women. As exciting as a possible job/work situation will be, we are even more excited to have our two friends become more fully known by our congregation.”

The overarching goal is to develop and disseminate a vision, process, practices, examples, and resources that can enable organizations, congregations, individuals, and networks to adapt and to replicate the project. A replication guide will be available in 2016.

National Collaborative Webinar Series

In January, the NCFD launched the webinar series, Honoring Spiritual Needs and Gifts: From Inertia to Collaborative Action by Providers and Congregations. Topics in the free monthly series are focused on honoring the spiritual needs and interests of people served and supported by provider agencies, strategies for connecting with congregations, resources developed to start and strengthen inclusive ministries, and a community call to action to move beyond inclusion to belonging.

The next scheduled webinar, Strategies for Congregations to Use in Building Awareness and Commitment Within Congregations, will take place on Monday, April 27, at 1:00pm (CDT). Registration is required at faithanddisability.org/webinar/ and all webinars are recorded and archived on the NCFD website.

The series is co-sponsored by the Spirituality Division of the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities and The Bethesda Institute. Supporting networks include The Arc US, Association of University Centers on Disabilities, Autism Society of America, Parent to Parent, the American Network of Community Options and Resources, and TASH.

The 25th Anniversary of the ADA and Faith Communities: An Opportunity, Invitation and Challenge

In 1990, the religious community was exempt from the legal requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Because July 2015 marks the 25th Anniversary of the signing of the ADA, the NCFD is working with the Interfaith Disability Advocacy Coalition of the American Association for Persons with Disabilities and the ADA Legacy Project to invite individual faith communities and faith networks to join in the national activities and to educate, celebrate, and re-commit to the vision of the ADA.

Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) Legacy exhibit bus

Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) Legacy exhibit bus

The NCFD has compiled a list of resources and activities on its website, including a downloadable and customizable pledge that illustrates a faith community’s willingness to commit to an accessible, welcoming worship experience for individuals and families with disabilities.

The Vanderbilt Kennedy Center will host the ADA Legacy exhibits on Wednesday, April 15, 9:30-11:30 a.m. See vkc.mc.vanderbilt.edu/events/4520 for details.

To learn more about any of these projects, visit  www.faithanddisability.org or contact courtney.taylor@vanderbilt.edu.

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