ORLANDO, Fla. — Lindsay Graham grew up in the same church attended by her parents and grandparents, and she expected the same would be true for her children. That changed when her son, J.D., was diagnosed with autism at age 2.
There were outbursts and tantrums, calls in the middle of the church service from the Sunday school teacher that J.D. was being disruptive. There were disapproving looks from other members of the congregation. Even if they didn’t say it, Graham knew what they were thinking: Can’t you keep your child under control?
“I felt very ostracized because he was always misbehaving. We just didn’t fit that perfect family mold,” said Graham, 33.
It was time to find another church, one equipped to handle children with disabilities. They ended up at First Baptist Orlando, which has a special needs ministry for children.
“At First Baptist, we found a place where we fit. I feel people don’t judge because you see a lot of kids with special needs,” Graham said.
Fifty million Americans have some form of disability and those numbers continue to grow as the population ages, the number of children with autism and attention deficit disorders grows, and soldiers return home from Iraq and Afghanistan with missing limbs and post-traumatic stress disorders.
But those numbers are not reflected in the pews, where accommodations for people with physical and mental handicaps are limited. A growing number of adults face the challenge of finding churches, synagogues, temples and mosques that are open and accepting of people with disabilities.
That is starting to change, said Bill Gaventa, director of the Summer Institute on Theology and Disability. Acceptance of people with disabilities has grown during the past 15 years as both welcoming congregations and people with special needs find each other through the Internet.