Social inclusion goes far beyond one’s presence in the community. It means that people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) are included in community life – in schools, neighborhoods, jobs, recreation, and congregations, and have opportunities to contribute their unique personalities and talents to others, occupy valued roles in community life, and belong to the community rather than to "the system."
Communities of faith provide rich opportunities for community membership and belonging. Congregations can address various types of barriers, including architectural, attitudinal, liturgical, and programmatic barriers, identifying needs for accommodations and adaptations for particular individuals. Congregation members can upgrade their expressions of and signs of hospitality, and also participate in community-wide efforts at promoting belonging. Religious education programs can become inclusive ones. Families and their family members with disabilities can be supported in various ways throughout the whole week, not just at once-a-week services. It is also important to remember that sometimes assistance needs to be concrete, such as support with transportation. Agencies that provide services to people with disabilities can also be supported by congregation members to both identify the spiritual needs of people with intellectual disabilities and assist them in expressing that spirituality.
There have been some comprehensive initiatives in faith communities. The Accessible Congregations Campaign of the United States National Organization on Disability aimed at having congregations commit to addressing all types of barriers to make their congregations more inclusive. BeFrienders Ministry is a social ministry that has provided the opportunity for many social ministers to befriend people with intellectual disabilities. And the Faith in Action projects funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation supported congregation members to put their faith into action by befriending isolated and marginalized people.
While many individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) experience physical inclusion in their community, social inclusion is often lacking. For many individuals with IDD, their social networks consist primarily of paid staff or professionals, and other people with disabilities. Many live, work, and spend their leisure time only with others with disabilities. For those adults with IDD who live with their families, their social networks are typically mediated through the family. While community members are increasingly used to the presence of people with IDD in community places of business, houses of worship, and in their places of employment, there remains a great social divide. Acceptance of physical presence is different from really knowing, befriending, and loving people. Physical presence is different from shared belonging and membership. For those who value inclusive communities, it is important to bridge this existing great divide between the “disability” world and the “community” world.
Keeping families involved
Families of people with IDD play an important role in supporting social inclusion. Families are important teachers of self-determination, self-awareness, and self-advocacy skills, and support the development of social skills. Supports and tools to assist families to not only think about present needs but also to think about life experiences that can support an inclusive, productive life in the future are important in promoting social inclusion for everyone.
Valued social roles
Historically, people with intellectual and developmental disabilities have been stereotyped and portrayed unfavorably – as burdens of charity, eternal children, menaces to society, unable to learn and grow – and cast into negative social roles that limited opportunities for social inclusion. To help us understand and address the psychological wounds that are inflicted on vulnerable people, psychologist and change agent Wolf Wolfensberger developed Social Role Valorization as a tool for analysis of the process and effects of societal devaluation. As a method of promoting the social inclusion of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, Wolfensberger’s focus on obtaining valued social roles was key to creating opportunities for people with IDD to have access to the good things in life.