Carter explores what it means to be a community of belonging for people with disabilities

Hands clasped together in unity
Eric Carter, Ph.D.

Eric Carter, Ph.D.

A desire to belong is not a “special need.” In fact, belonging is a very ordinary need shared by most everyone, with and without disabilities. This is one of the issues explored by Vanderbilt Kennedy Center member Erik Carter, Ph.D. (Special Education), whose work has identified ten dimensions of belonging of individuals with disabilities—indeed for anyone—in congregations, schools, workplaces, and communities.

“In my own field of special education, the outcomes we have pursued for young people with labels like Down syndrome, autism, and intellectual disability have evolved over the last few decades,” said Carter. “Where we once pursued integration, we now talk about promoting inclusion. But my sense is that both terms fall short of what really matters most. People want to be more than merely integrated or included. They want to experience true belonging. But belonging is a hard concept to define. We quickly feel its absence, but describing its presence can be much more challenging.”

Carter and his team interviewed or surveyed more than 500 adolescents with an intellectual disability or autism and their parents about the things that help them to flourish. From their conversations, ten dimensions of belonging emerged.

Dimensions of Belonging

  1. Present. Are individuals with disabilities present in all the activities you offer? Belonging requires presence. It is hard for people to be in relationship when they never or rarely encounter one another. The absence of people with disabilities from faith communities, workplaces, and other community activities is often the first barrier to be addressed.
  2. Invited. Are individuals with disabilities being personally invited to participate in all that your congregation, school, or program offers? An announcement is quite different from an invitation! An invitation says “we want you here!” An announcement leaves open the possibility of a footnote or exception (i.e., all does not always mean all).
  3. Welcomed. Are individuals with disabilities warmly welcomed when they arrive? We all hope to encounter hospitality and a warm welcome when we arrive to a new community for the first time. But such gestures are not guaranteed for people with intellectual disabilities. Rather than feeling welcomed, many leave feeling wounded. In fact, as many as one third of parents report having changed their place of worship because their son or daughter with an intellectual and developmental disability was not welcomed or included.
  4. Known. Are individuals with disabilities truly known within your community? Spending time with someone and learning about their interests, stories, passions, and gifts helps them become known in new ways. Known not by a label, but as an individual. Known not by deficits, but by strengths. And when people are known, they go from “being present” to “having a presence.”
  5. Accepted. Are individuals with disabilities accepted without condition or caveat? Real acceptance comes through personal interactions over time. As someone becomes known deeply, true acceptance grows. And people come to feel like part of family and embraced for who they are.
  6. Supported. Are individuals with disabilities provided the support they need to participate fully and meaningfully? Sometimes, young people with intellectual disabilities will benefit from additional support to participate fully in certain activities. Such supports may need to be more individualized or a bit more intensive. Let creativity and intentionality describe your posture. Not sure where to start? Just ask the person what you can do to make them feel welcome.
  7. Cared for. Are individuals with disabilities receiving care in ways that help them flourish? Everyone needs care. And authentic communities should be marked by generous care. There are many ways to meet this need, and most require no disability expertise, such as sharing a meal, asking about life, offering a ride, praying together, providing a job connection, or extending a helping hand.
  8. Befriended. Are individuals with disabilities named as friends? We flourish most in relationship with others. Yet friendships can be so elusive for individuals with developmental disabilities. For example, 44 percent of youth with autism never see friends outside of school and 51 percent have not been invited to a peer’s social activities during the past year.
  9. Needed. Are individuals with disabilities missed when they are not present? Our society often struggles to see people with disabilities as possessing gifts and strengths that make them indispensable to a community. Communities must come to see themselves as incomplete without the presence and participation of people with disabilities.
  10. Loved. Are individuals with disabilities experiencing a deep love? We can be certain we belong when we are loved. This aspect of belonging needs little elaboration. Our deepest desire is to love and to be loved.

Ten Dimensions of Belonging

pie chart showing 10 dimensions


In a talk presented this year as part of Calvin College’s January Lecture Series, Carter illustrated how each of these ten dimensions of belonging can be addressed within a faith community. In doing so, he challenged the notion that people with disabilities primarily have “special needs.”

“If these ten dimensions of belonging reflect our deepest needs, they don’t seem very special to me. They seem pretty ordinary, and they seem pretty universal. These are everyone’s deepest needs.”

For additional information on Erik Carter and his scholarship, visit

To download “Welcoming People with Developmental Disabilities and Their Families: A Practical Guide for Congregations,” click here.

Elizabeth Turner is associate director of VKC Communications.

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