Karen Jackson Named Recipient of 2023 Reimagining Spirituality Leadership Award

Karen Jackson will be presented with the 2023 Reimagining Spirituality Leadership Award by the Religion and Spirituality Interest Network of AAIDD at the Network Forum on June 5, 2023.

UPDATE: Read the announcement on the AAIDD Website, here!

We are pleased to announce Karen Jackson as the 2023 recipient of the Reimagining Spirituality Leadership Award! This award recognizes the creative ways she has promoted opportunities for people with disabilities for personal spiritual growth, developing enriching relationships, and participating in spiritual or religious community.

Black-and white photo of a smiling white woman (Karen) looking at the camera with medium-length hair, a pearl earing and a light-blazer.
Karen F. Jackson

Mrs. Jackson lives in Norfolk, VA with her husband Scott and daughter, Samantha. She graduated from the Eastman School of Music with a BM in Music Education and Clarinet Performance and from Temple University with an MM in Music Education. She has been a professional music educator for 33 years and is currently Director of Bands and Fine Arts Department Chair at Norfolk Christian Schools.

Karen’s experience in the faith and disability community began 15 years ago when, while searching for a congregation that would welcome her daughter who is severely affected by autism, she began advocating in congregations in her community. In 2007 she accepted a position as her Catholic church’s first Parish Advocate for persons affected by disability. This volunteer position led Karen to found Faith Inclusion Network in 2008.

In addition to leading Faith Inclusion Network for the organization’s first 14 years, Mrs. Jackson has spoken at a variety of conferences, including the AAIDD Annual Meeting, TASH Annual Conference, the Summer Institute on Theology and Disability and the AUCD Annual Conference.  Her published writing includes articles in The Catholic Virginian, U.S. Catholic, TASH Connections and for various websites.  She also contributed to the book, Amazing Gifts: Stories of Faith, Disability and Inclusion by Mark Pinsky and is the author of her own book, Loving Samantha published in 2015.

McNair Named Recipient of 2022 Reimagining Spirituality Leadership Award

Dr. Jeff McNair was presented with the 2022 Reimagining Spirituality Leadership Award by the Religion and Spirituality Interest Network of AAIDD. The award was presented at the Network Forum on June 13, 2022.

McNair is professor of Special Education at California Baptist University (CBU). After receiving his BA in Christian Education (Wheaton College), he completed an MA (Cal State LA) and a Ph.D. in Special Education (University of Illinois at Champaign Urbana). He went on to teach at Cal State San Bernardino for 15 years and has been at CBU since 2004 training teachers to educate students with extensive needs. While completing his education, he and his wife Kathi have been involved in disability ministry at the local churches they attended, starting in 1974.

Over these years, Jeff increasingly saw the connection between community integration and the potential of the local Christian community. Study of the Bible led to a growing understanding of a Biblical perspective on disability resulting in writing, lecturing and teaching about this perspective. He also worked for ten years for the Joni and Friends organization allowing him to teach about disability ministry/theology in 21 countries on 5 continents. Jeff founded the Disability Studies MA at CBU arguably the first grad program in disability ministry. He has delivered numerous sermons and has over 60 publications on these issues. His weblog disabledChristianity has resulted in two books.

For the last 30 years, he and Kathi have facilitated The Light & Power Company, a ministry that includes adults with developmental disabilities at Trinity EV Free church in Redlands, California also resulting in the publication of curriculum for adults with intellectual disabilities most recently on Philippians. Jeff has also been involved with his son Josh producing father/son travel videos the most successful on Route 66 which has ten million views (Through My Lens). Second only to his love for his family, the passion of Jeff and Kathi’s lives has been that the Christian church would truly love their neighbors with disabilities.

Christensen Named 2021 Recipient of AAIDD’s Religion and Spirituality Leadership Award

Shelly Christensen, MA, FAAIDD of Minneapolis, Minn. has been named the 2021 recipient of the Religion and Spirituality Leadership Award. You can watch the award presentation and Shelly’s speech below and learn more about Shelly on this page.

Award Presentation:

Shelly Christensen is a pioneer and leader in the faith community disability and mental health inclusion field. Her career spans over twenty years and was anchored by her experiences as the parent of a child with autism. Long before she was an emerging leader in the field, Shelly was trained as a parent advocate, unwaveringly holding the school accountable for her son’s rights to a free appropriate public education as mandated in the IDEA. The family’s synagogue and religious school their sons attended treated all children with equity and respect, seamlessly adapting education to meet each child’s needs and ensuring his lifelong connection to his Jewish identity and community.

Twenty-five years after earning a Bachelor of Arts degree in Journalism from the University of Minnesota, Christensen earned a Master of Arts degree in Developmental Disabilities from St. Mary’s University of Minnesota. Her graduate work centered on the parent experience when a child is diagnosed, particularly four universal needs: getting information about the disability, locating services, finding social and emotional support, and making meaning.

Shelly Christensen began her professional career as the Program Manager of a new program, the Jewish Community Inclusion Program for People with Disabilities. Her innovative leadership approach supported synagogues, schools, community centers, and other agencies to significantly adapt attitudes toward people with disabilities and those who love them, applying theological texts, employing person-centered support, and prioritizing inclusion throughout the organization. After the publication of her first book, The Jewish Community Guide to Inclusion of People with Disabilities, she was in demand as a keynote speaker, trainer, and mentor to many Jewish communities in North America.

In 2009, Christensen co-founded Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance and Inclusion Month with the Jewish Special Education Consortium. The purpose was to coalesce communities and organizations to raise awareness about disability inclusion and designating one month for JDAIM. Shelly coordinates this grassroots initiative. A handful of communities and organizations participated the first year. Now JDAIM is recognized around the world by national and international organizations as well as locally. Shelly also consults with an interfaith initiative, Community for All, which is based on JDAIM.

In her 2018 book, From Longing to Belonging—A Practical Guide to Including People with Disabilities and Mental Health Conditions in Your Faith Community, she weaves stories, practical strategies and step by step guidance, as well as references to supporting biblical text, to foster diversity, equity and inclusion. In 2020 Shelly and colleague Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer co-created “Everyone’s Welcome-A Fresh Conversation About Disability.” Everyone’s welcome is a twice-monthly webinar series in which guests from diverse faiths, practices, interests, and lived experiences share their stories and their work. Shelly is currently developing an online course based on From Longing to Belonging that will launch as a pilot in 2021.

The Award was presented at the AAIDD Religion and Spirituality Interest Network Forum on June 24, 2021

DeYoung Named 2020 Nouwen Award Recipient

T.DeYoungRev. Terry DeYoung of Holland, Mich., has been named the recipient of the 2020 Henri J. M. Nouwen Award. The award is presented annually by the Religion and Spirituality Interest Network of the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (AAIDD). It honors an individual whose life and work reflect a distinguished level of commitment to ministry and servanthood that values people with developmental disabilities and their lives of faith. “Terry’s writing, teaching, and ministry truly exemplify the spirit of the Nouwen award,” said David Morstad, president of the Religion and Spirituality Network, “We’re thrilled to honor him.”

 DeYoung is coordinator for Disability Concerns for the Reformed Church in America (RCA). He was hired 11 years ago to raise awareness by launching the RCA’s first ministry to, with, and by people with disabilities, and to do so in collaboration with the longstanding Disability Concerns ministry of a sister denomination, the Christian Reformed Church in North America (CRCNA).

In 32 years as an ordained minister, he has served as a pastor, magazine editor, and denominational staff member. Since 1992 he has been active with Disability Network/Lakeshore, a Center for Independent Living that advocates for people with disabilities in two west Michigan counties. His exposure to the disability rights movement and its independent living philosophy have been instrumental in DeYoung’s growing awareness of the needs and marginalization of people with disabilities.

“People with disabilities truly have been my greatest teachers in this work that we share. I love what I do and who I do it with,” DeYoung said in receiving the award. “I am deeply indebted to several grassroots RCA members with disabilities who were willing to stir the pot in 2003 and challenge the RCA’s highest assembly to take bold action within our small but historic denomination. Our partnership with CRCNA Disability Concerns has become a model for mutuality, interdependence, belonging, and doing more together, as together we seek to foster churches where everybody belongs and everybody serves.”

DeYoung’s work with RCA Disability Concerns for the past 11 years have been richly influenced by professional and personal experiences. He lives with a rare, congenital bone condition that affects all of his joints and the growth of his bones. For 30 years he has been married to Cindi Veldheer DeYoung, also an ordained minister in the RCA. Cindi, who has lived with significant hearing loss since childhood, is a chaplain at Spectrum Health’s large medical center in downtown Grand Rapids, Mich.

AAIDD is the oldest and largest interdisciplinary organization of professionals and others concerned about intellectual and developmental disabilities. Since 1876, the organization has been providing worldwide leadership in the disability field. The AAIDD Religion and Spirituality Interest Network is an interfaith, interdisciplinary association of professionals who foster opportunities for spiritual growth among people with developmental disabilities and their families.

How to access the Journal of Disability & Religion

Your membership in the Religion and Spirituality Special Interest Group of AAIDD provides you with access to the Journal of Disability & Religion. Keep up with current conversations on disability and theology by many of the leading voices in this area, as well as investigate historical roots.

We have included below updated information on how to access the Journal of Disability & Religion with your Division membership. Going forward, you can find these step-by-step instructions on our activities & resources page.

Here’s how to access the journal:

  • Login to your account on
  • Select “Journals” under “Publications” which is on the top of your screen.
  • You will find the AAIDD Journals listed first, and then the Journal of Disability & Religion (currently listed as the Journal of Religion, Disability, & Health).
  • Select the “view” button to the right, which looks like this: 
  • This will bring you to a page with a “Click here to access the journal” link that will remain active for 5 minutes.
  • Follow the link, and you will be brought to a page that lists links for all volumes, from “Latest Articles back to Volume 1 from 1994.

Journal of Disability & Religion

journalcoverThe Journal of Disability & Religion provides an interfaith, interdisciplinary forum for people interested in the intersections of religion, disability, human services, and academic research to come together, meet, and learn. The aim of this exchange is to support people with disabilities and their families as well as those who are working with them in the purview of their faith communities and traditions. It addresses religious and spiritual practices and beliefs from the perspective of inclusive communities for people with disabilities.

Thomas Hoeksema – Henri J Nouwen Reward Recipient

At the recent Religion and Spirituality Division meeting of the AAIDD in Hartfort, CT Dr. Thomas Hoeksema was awarded the Henri J. Nowen award. You can learn more about the award criteria here.

Over at the monthly CRC publication The BannerLori Dykstra wrote an excellent write-up on July 6th. You can find the article at this link, though we will also include the text below. Thanks to Lori and the Banner for permission to repost.

shelly and tom
Henri Nouwen Award presented by outgoing Division president Shelly Christensen.

On June 29, Dr. Thomas Hoeksema, former chair of the Christian Reformed Church’s Committee on Disability Concerns, was presented the 2017 Henri Nouwen Award. The award recognizes an individual with compassion for and a commitment to people who have developmental disabilities, and who is dedicated to expanding and enhancing the understanding of their spiritual needs and gifts.

Presented by the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (AAIDD) Religion and Spirituality Division, the ceremony took place in Hartford, Conn., at the organization’s annual national convention.

The Henri Nouwen Award is bestowed upon a recipient who is nominated by his or her peers. Hoeksema was nominated by his peers at CLC Network (formerly Christian Learning Center).

“If somehow this award can remind people of Nouwen’s virtues, and if my life in some way reflected those too, then I’m happy,” said Hoeksema, a member at Grace Christian Reformed Church (Grand Rapids, Mich.). “[Nouwen] fundamentally changed how I and many others value people with disabilities. They have gifts, and those gifts need to be unwrapped, shared, and received.”

Hoeksema has dedicated his entire 40-year career to coming alongside people with disabilities and their families, working to improve inclusivity and accessibility in society.

As a professor at Calvin College, Hoeksema helped pioneer the special education program in 1978. He also created the Office of Services for Students with Disabilities, worked with the college to eliminate barriers for students with limited mobility, and served as the director of the college’s Institute on Inclusive Schooling from 1997-2001.

Hoeksema was a founder and board member of CLC Network, which strives to empower schools and churches to educate and include people with disabilities. He also served as a board member for Friendship Ministries, the International Journal of Whole Schooling, and the Journal of Religion, Disability and Health (now Journal of Disability & Religion).

“God put in me an awareness of people who were sometimes invisible to others. I don’t claim credit for that; it was just in me,” said Hoeksema. “All I could do was respond with my heart and mind and my whole self. My desire was to change the church, change the school, change the workplace and the world in ways that would make it something closer to what God would want it to be.”

You may wish to read a similar announcement from the CLC Network at the following link and adding a comment of congratulations:

You can download Dr. Thomas Hoeksema’s paper, Protecting Religious Freedom: The Caregiver’s Responsibility by clicking here.

President’s Greeting


I want to take this time to introduce myself, Neil Cudney, as the President of the Religion and Spirituality Division for the next two years, as well, update you on some of the current work.

One behalf of the division executive committee, I invite you to get acquainted with the division and encourage you to participate in the upcoming AAIDD June conference, and our post-conference Division day on June 29th 2017.

The focus of our day will be the new Home and Community Based Services regulations in the USA and the AODA in Canada, two pieces of government legislation that expect service providers to support faith and culture choices of persons with disabilities. It will be an important day of presentations and discussion.  We are making arrangements so that participants will be able to join online.  We would love to have you there in person but understand that distance and costs are a reality.  By creating an online option, we hope that many of our members will join the day.

We have updated the division’s website to increase accessibility and engagement. Please let us know if you have any ideas you would like to see included. You can also follow along with the division on Facebook ( or Twitter (@aaiddreligion).

We want to remind you of a great resource and encourage you to subscribe to the Journal of Disability and Religion.  There you will find a wide array of articles addressing spirituality in the lives of persons with disabilities.  The articles are from all over the globe and represent the various perspectives of spirituality. You will find a link to the journal on the division website.  Attached you will find a sample article.

The Division also offers a professional certification program.  It is a great opportunity for those who have, as part of their responsibilities, the mandate to encourage, instruct and lead spiritual supports in their agency or faith community.  It is a guided course of study and research that will deepen understanding and engagement.  Upon successful completion, the Division grants and endorses that the person has met the requirements and expectations of the Certificate.

One of our hopes for the division is that it would become a place of meeting and collaboration for anyone who is invested in promoting the spiritual hopes, dreams and desires of persons with disabilities.         

Thank your for being a member of this Division, and we hope to be able to support, encourage and engage you in this important work.  You can help us in two ways.

  1. Considering coming yourself, or identifying a person within your organization to attend.
  2. Help us to spread the word and encourage others to become a part of the Division?

If you have any questions, comments or thoughts regarding the division, please do not hesitate to contact me at

Yours, Dr Neil Cudney, President

Celebrating Bob Perske

bob_perskeToday we take a moment to celebrate the life of Robert (Bob) Perske (1927-2016), long time member of the Religion & Spirituality Division of the AAIDD. Early in his career, Bob served as a chaplain at Kansas Neurological Institute, an institution for 250 children and youth with intellectual disabilities.  After pastoring there for eleven years, he continued to live a lifetime of writing and advocacy for people with disabilities, especially as they faced courts and legal processes. Where people with IDD may confess to crimes they did not commit simply because they wish to make the police or others happy, Bob tirelessly fought for their rights in his actions and writing.

You can read many of Bob’s articles over at his website, The AAIDD will be offering a special pre-conference workshop on living his legacy forward before the upcoming conference. You can read a tribute from the AAIDD here. A striking quote from this tribute reflects on Bob’s constant reminder that human dignity involves risk. All too often, caregivers and service organizations have “clever ways of building the avoidance of risk into the lives” of people with IDD. Bob drew attention to these practices that stifled their opportunities for personal growth, observing that there can be a “dehumanizing indignity in safety.”

Communitas EST recently released a retrospective newsletter following a life celebration for Bob in Darien, CT – his home for 40 years. We have been given permission to post that newsletter here, which I encourage you to take a look at.

Click here to download the newsletter – “Celebrating Bob Perske!!”

2017 Call for Nominations – Henri J.M. Nouwen Award

Nominations due by Friday, February 10, 2017

The Religion and Spirituality Division of AAIDD is proud to announce that we are now accepting nominations for the 2017 Henri J.M. Nouwen Award recipient. Nominees are people who reflect the compassion, commitment, ministry and servanthood that
values and esteems people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. The Award will be presented at the 2017 AAIDD Annual Conference in Hartford, CT, June 26-29.

To learn more about the nomination process or to submit a nomination, click here.

Benjamin T. Conner receives the Henri J. M. Nouwen Award from Anne Masters

Important Announcement! Call for Nominations for the Henri J.M. Nouwen Award

Due date for all nominations is January 31, 2016

Download a flyer with this information here

Dear Religion and Spirituality Division Members

Do you know the next Henri J.M. Nouwen Award recipient?

The Religion and Spirituality Division of AAIDD is proud to announce that we are now accepting nominations for the 2015 Henri J.M. Nouwen Award recipient.

Continue reading “Important Announcement! Call for Nominations for the Henri J.M. Nouwen Award”