January Message from the President

Let’s begin with access

Let’s begin with access

I have been involved with a team of professionals in Southern California who are looking at religious freedom/faith group access of people living in residential settings. Although it is arguable that faith communities offer the greatest potential for social integration (let alone the exercise of personal faith), opportunities for participation have been limited in a variety of ways. First, because faith communities have not always been accepting of those with disabilities, doors have been closed. Second, human service plans for those entering adult residential care may not include the possibility of participation. Additionally, it appears that if someone being placed in residential care does not enter with faith participation being a part of their plan, there is very little chance such opportunities for participation will be afforded them in the future. Added to these is four, the fear of facilitating faith group involvement on the part of education/rehabilitation/direct care workers because of the supposed separation of church and state. Fifth, is the fear on the part of residential facilities of allowing people with disabilities to have real lives that include the possibility that bad things might happen to them when they are in the community. If bad things happen, residential providers expose themselves to law suits so involvement in real community life is curtailed. So much better for the residential facility if clients just stay home. One can’t help but wonder how religious exercise among people with intellectual or developmental disabilities living in residential settings is even a possibility.

I personally have two friends who live in a group home. One, a higher functioning woman participates in community activities because when asked by group home regulators whether she had done anything in particular in the past week, she is able to lie saying, “No, I just stayed here and went to work.” The other is a man with more severe disabilities who I have taken out for a hamburger or other outings, until recently. When he is asked the same question and not understanding that he should lie, he will respond, “Jeff took me out for a hamburger and coffee!” Rather than receiving the response, “Good for you!” the response is to accuse the group home provider with questions about “Who is this Jeff, and why would he want to take Fred out?” It seems the notion that someone would even be interested in developing a friendship with a man with severe intellectual disabilities is totally foreign to them. That someone would want such a relationship, implies that that person needs to be watched and monitored and the resident protected from that individual.

I wish this were a rare occurrence, but I suspect it is not.

We who hope to facilitate faith group participation must take the lead in advocating for the free expression of faith among those with disabilities which includes relationships with community members. We must advocate for those incarcerated in group homes to be provided the opportunity to experience faith group participation such that they can choose, can request such participation. If regulations impede free expression, we must examine and facilitate changes such that people have the opportunity to experience the level of community integration that faith group participation affords.

In a way, we fire a pre-emptive strike when we work to allow for the free exercise of religious faith. As our faith communities continue to awaken to the presence of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities in the community and the richness their participation brings, we need to remove the barriers that would prohibit their fellowship.

Blessings, Jeff McNair

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