What are the stats on disability and church?


Editor’s Note: Shannon Dingle is compiling the data examining, disability, adoption, mental illness and church. Here’s what she found in terms of research on persons with disabilities in the church.

Last week I opened a three-part series of posts on statistics and ministry by sharing general figures about the prevalence of disability and mental illness in the US. I challenged you to consider how your church can better represent those numbers, that all people may hear and know the truth of the gospel. Today I want us to zoom in a little closer, looking specifically at research pertaining to people with disabilities in the church.

Please feel free to share the information in this post and the other two in my series. If you do so, I’d encourage you to include the sources so that others can be like Bereans and not just believe what we say but verify it for themselves. Whenever I am a main stage or workshop speaker, I consider it my responsibility as an ambassador of Christ to present only the research I can document as being true and not just hearsay. (For example, the oft-quoted stat that 85-95% of special needs families are unchurched isn’t supported by any research, so I really think we – as people of the Truth – ought to stop repeating it.) This series of posts is the first time I have posted my speaking statistics online, but I realize many more people can be equipped this way than in person.

(If you’ll be at the Refresh Conference in Seattle this month, A Church For Everyone in McAllen, TX in April, the Accessibility Summit in DC in April, or the Christian Alliance For Orphans Summit in Orlando in May, though, I would love to meet you face to face!)

Now let’s look at the facts! What does research indicate about people with disabilities and their involvement in faith communities? I invite you to add any figures I might have overlook in the comments. As we verify anything you share with us, we’ll add to this piece so it can be a growing, collaborative tool for all of us!

At church in general,

  • People with disabilities are less likely to attend worship services, Bible studies, and other church activities than those without disabilities.[i] Between 2000 and 2010, however, that gap narrowed,[ii] which we at Key Ministry believe is the result of more churches becoming aware of the need and actively welcoming people of all abilities. We are thankful for progress, but let’s keep working to close that gap for the glory of God and the good of his people.
  • People with autism are more likely to be atheists and more likely to reject organized religion.[iii]
  • More inclusive faith communities were described in one study as having five common characteristics. They “(i) featured faith leaders who were more committed to inclusion; (ii) used educational resources to address disability-related issues; (iii) portrayed people with disabilities positively in their religious teachings; (iv) had stronger ties to disability organizations; and (v) had a stronger orientation towards promoting social justice.”[iv]

For children with disabilities and their families,

  • In one study, more than half of special needs parents reported that their child with a disability had been excluded at church.[v]
  • Erik W. Carter, a noted researcher in this area, and his colleagues noted in one study that “the considerable diversity in parental needs reflected… should challenge congregations to avoid a one-size-fits-all approach to supporting families and instead consider avenues for individualizing their efforts to meet felt needs among the individuals and families present within their community.”[vi]
  • More than 90% of church-going special needs parents cited the most helpful support to be a “welcoming attitude toward people with disabilities.” Meanwhile, only about 80% of those parents said that welcoming attitude was present at their church.[vii] (This and the rest of the bullet points in this section are drawn from Melinda Jones Ault’s doctoral dissertation, which included a sample of more than 400 special needs parents involved in faith communities. I am deeply thankful for her excellent contribution in this area.)
  • Welcoming church behaviors, described by parents in one study, included “having persons in the faith community take time to speak directly to their child, approach them and ask them what supports they may need, offer to sit with or watch their child, visit them and provide food at times of crisis, call and check on them when they were absent, and sustain the support over time when a chronic condition existed.”
  • More than 60% of special needs parents regularly attending church described church inclusion for their child as participation with same-aged peers, with or without supports, while only about 12% and 6% respectively described having their child included with younger children or segregated with only other children with disabilities.
  • Almost 1/3 (32.3%) of special needs families said they had left at least one church because their child was not included or welcomed.
  • Nearly 50% (46.6%) of special needs parents said they refrained from participating in a religious activity because their child was not included or welcomed.
  • More than half of special needs parents reported that they had kept their child from participating in a religious activity because support was not provided (55.8%) or been expected to stay with your child at a religious activity so your child could participate (55.3%).
  • shutterstock_192514547Families affected by disability who regularly attended church were “significantly more likely to respond that their son or daughter was supported in the place of worship than was not supported.” Other factors, including the specific kind of supports (i.e. inclusion with same-aged peers vs. separate classes for kids with disabilities) offered and the size of the congregation, did not impact attendance in the same way.
  • Among church-attending special needs families, 86.5% said that their church needs more education and training about disability.
  • Specifically, parents identified a need for this training in “general awareness of the characteristics of disabilities, how to be inclusive, and how to work with a variety of individuals and include them across a range of ability levels” as well as “behavioral characteristics of their sons’ or daughters’ disability, modes of communication, and how to care for individuals with complex needs” and “reaching out to families of children with disabilities, knowing how individuals with disabilities are viewed and treated by the church, and how to bridge social gaps and include all persons.”
  • When special needs parents described positive attitudes toward their family at church, they used words like “welcoming, supportive, willingness to be inclusive, accommodating, accepting, loving, willing to try, showing a genuine interest, understanding, kind, thoughtful, nice, caring, and tolerant.”
  • When parents described negative attitudes they had encountered toward their special needs at church, they said things like “unwilling to try to involve, unhelpful, intolerant of differences, anxious about the presence of the child, impatient, unsupportive, unfriendly, and uncompassionate.” These parents “indicated that they often received stares from other congregants, were treated like a missions project, had ‘horrendous’ experiences with faith communities related to their child’s disability, and felt rejected and isolated.” Among other children, some mentioned “negative attitudes of the child’s peers where parents noted the children made faces at their daughter and mocked her, were mean to their child, and were not willing to accept the child.”
  • One parent of an upper elementary child with a significant health impairment said, “Churches are only buildings. The people who attend those churches are what make the difference. Their attitudes make all the difference.”
  • Pros and cons were found for both large and small faith communities. In small churches, “parents indicated that although they did not have specialized programs or personnel, their family was well-known there, people loved and cared for their child, and they were willing to adapt and provide programs.” Meanwhile, large churches were more likely to have experience with and knowledge about autism as well as already-established specialized programs and proactive planning for inclusion.
  • Parents indicated that special needs inclusion and participation in faith communities was easier when children were younger and became more difficult as the child grow older.
  • Parents described the following child behaviors as challenges for church participation: being “noisy in church, having complex needs, not being able to sit still, touching others, overwhelmed by the noise and chaos, loud and unpredictable, aggressive with others, unable to understand religious education lessons, and over stimulated. These behaviors resulted in parents feeling embarrassed in services, receiving stares from others, refraining from participating in services, removing their child from activities, attending activities with their child to provide assistance, and being told not to bring their child back to services or activities.”
  • Fatigue was a common parental characteristic cited as preventing inclusion of a child at church. Many parents indicated a strong desire for a church community but, as one put it, because of our child’s needs “we have not had the time or energy to seek-out and prepare (educate) a new spiritual home for ourselves. Therefore, we do not attend regular weekly services anywhere, as much as we could really use the support and spiritual community.”

For youth and adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities and their families,

  • One qualitative study[i] of youth with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) concluded that “an essential element of supporting inclusion in faith communities involves fostering friendships and other supportive relationships. Efforts to increase architectural and attitudinal accessibility—while necessary—are usually insufficient for promoting the development of personal relationships between young people with IDD and other members of a congregation… Intentional planning and thoughtful supports are likely needed to create contexts in which people with and without IDD are likely to meet, spend time together, and develop new relationships.”
  • Adults with IDD are less likely to attend church than other adults, and adults with IDD who report their level of disability as somewhat or very severe attend at lower rates than those who report their disability level as slight or moderate.[ii]
  • In the same study cited in the last bullet, adults with Down syndrome were considerably more likely to attend church than adults with other disabilities, while adults with autism spectrum disorders, behavioral challenges, or psychiatric disabilities were less likely to do so.
  • Furthermore, “adults with IDD who attended religious services within the past month also tended to participate more frequently in other forms of community involvement (e.g., going out to eat, shopping, going out to exercise). This finding may reflect the fact that individuals who attend religious services also have fewer physical, cognitive, or behavioral limitations, as well as have greater access to supports and services than those individuals who do not attend religious services, and that these same variables also contribute to greater participation in other measures of community involvement.”

The biggest takeaway for all three of the posts in this series?

Church, we have a great opportunity to show love! The need is great. Kids are hurting. Adults are too. Families are struggling. The first step in being able to help is understanding the need.

Jesus met people where they were, and so can we.



[i] Liu, Eleanor X; Carter, Erik WBoehm, Thomas LAnnandale, Naomi HTaylor, Courtney E. In Their Own Words: The Place of Faith in the Lives of Young People With Autism and Intellectual Disability. Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities52.5 (Oct 2014): 388-404.

[ii] Carter, Erik; Kleinert, Harold L; LoBianco, Tony F; Sheppard-Jones, Kathleen; Butler, Laura N; et al. Congregational Participation of a National Sample of Adults With Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities. Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities. 53.6 (Dec 2015): 381-393,441,443.

[i] The National Organization on Disability. Religious Participation: Facts and Statistics. http://www.nod.org/religion/index.cfm

[ii] The ADA, 20 Years Later Executive Summary. July 2010. Kessler Foundation/The National Organization on Disability. http://www.2010disabilitysurveys.org/pdfs/surveysummary.pdf

[iii] Caldwell-Harris, C., Murphy, C.F., Velasquez, T., & McNamara, P. (Unpublished). Religious Belief Systems of Persons with High Functioning Autism. Research paper from the Departments of Psychology and Neurology at Boston University. Available at http://csjarchive.cogsci.rpi.edu/proceedings/2011/papers/0782/paper0782.pdf

[iv] Griffin, M. M., Kane, L. W., Taylor, C., Francis, S. H. and Hodapp, R. M. (2012), Characteristics of Inclusive Faith Communities: A Preliminary Survey of Inclusive Practices in the United States. Journal of Applied Research in Intellectual Disabilities, 25: 383–391.

[v] O’Hanlon, Elizabeth. Religion and Disability: The Experiences of Families of Children with Special Needs. Journal of Religion, Disability & Health. Vol. 17, Iss. 1, 2013

[vi] Erik W. Carter, Thomas L. Boehm, Naomi H. Annandale, and Courtney E. Taylor. Supporting Congregational Inclusion for Children and Youth With Disabilities and Their Families. Exceptional Children 0014402915598773, first published on September 8, 2015.

[vii] Ault, M. J. (2010). Participation of families of children with disabilities in their faith communities: A survey of parents (Order No. 3492795). Available from ProQuest Central; ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (919088298).

About Dr. G

Dr. Stephen Grcevich serves as President and Founder of Key Ministry, a non-profit organization providing free training, consultation, resources and support to help churches serve families of children with disabilities. Dr. Grcevich is a graduate of Northeastern Ohio Medical University (NEOMED), trained in General Psychiatry at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation and in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at University Hospitals of Cleveland/Case Western Reserve University. He is a faculty member in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at two medical schools, leads a group practice in suburban Cleveland (Family Center by the Falls), and continues to be involved in research evaluating the safety and effectiveness of medications prescribed to children for ADHD, anxiety and depression. He is a past recipient of the Exemplary Psychiatrist Award from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Dr. Grcevich was recently recognized by Sharecare as one of the top ten online influencers in children’s mental health. His blog for Key Ministry, www.church4everychild.org was ranked fourth among the top 100 children's ministry blogs in 2015 by Ministry to Children.
This entry was posted in Advocacy, Families, Inclusion, Intellectual Disabilities, Key Ministry, Parents, Special Needs Ministry and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

56 Responses to What are the stats on disability and church?

  1. Mary Beth Walsh says:

    Thank you for this study. It is interesting and will be helpful to all of us engaged in encouraging the meaningful participation of individuals with disabilities in the church. I have one concern, however. Your second bullet point reads, “People with autism are more likely to be atheists and more likely to reject organized religion.” The citation for this bullet point is an unpublished research article, titled, “Religious Belief Systems of Persons with High Functioning Autism.” I believe that it is of paramount importance to remember that people with “high functioning” autism are a subset of all the people with autism. Those with autism diagnoses and fully functional language do not speak for those with autism and no language, who might otherwise be described as “low functioning.” You distort the research by over generalizing the class of people studied. And that over generalized bullet point does a tremendous disservice to individuals with autism, like my son, who do not speak fluently, but who love to go to church, love to pray, love to sing at church, and as far as I can tell, believe deeply in the being and love of God as experienced through his encounter with the people of God.


    • You’re certainly right that the range of what autism looks like and how it manifests in any individual is varied. Unfortunately, so little research is available in this field that none of us can say for sure how the results might look if a different subset of people with autism was used. As the mom of a son with autism (albeit deemed as high functioning), I know that a bullet point describing a singular study isn’t necessarily going to be representative of what his reality is, but I wouldn’t say sharing I’m distorting research to share that it does represent the realities for some. Does that make sense?

      That said, condensing research into bullet points is always tricky. That’s why I include the citations, so folks can dig deeper and not just take my summary at face value.


  2. Pst denish aron says:

    people with disability should be given a door to door fellowship, provided with movable wheel chair,given a Post and work in the church.


  3. thejourneyisthelife says:

    Reblogged this on the journey is the life and commented:

    I have had a front row seat as to how the church has treated the mentally ill.

    I have watched at a minimum three seminary trained ordained pastors take a passive approach to my schizophrenic brother. They either totally ignored him or decided it was his job to reach out.

    Anyone versed in mental illness knows how hard it is to take that first step and say this is what is going on with me. Even for those of us who don’t suffer from mental illness can understand when we are vulnerable with someone who doesn’t reciprocate, how that flares our insecurities.

    I watched the church(different church, different leaders) handle my best friend’s schizophrenic ex-husband (current at the time) in a similar fashion. This hands off approach is not isolated to one group of people.

    The statistics are staggering when it comes to disabilities, most American families are touched in someway. I hope church leaders start educating themselves and their congregations in how to embrace those with disabilities as well as their families.


    • Diane Engster says:

      I am an adult with multiple disabilities and have been involved in church inclusion as my life’s work. I have had serious emotional/cognitive challenges since being a teen. I have seen many who are labelled as “mentally ill” been treated very badly by the church.

      I have a wealth of information on these topics and frequently have commented on these posts but get no response so for a long time I have given up. This doesn’t seem very inclusive to me. Most kids and adults with disabilities don’t just want to be patted on the head and treated special. We want to be equal which means engaging in dialogue with us even if there is a difference of opinion.

      Indeed, what you are asking ppl in churches is to change their opinions and actions that have excluded us for years and years so ppl with different perspectives must communicate in order to reach an understanding.

      I wish that there were ppl involved in this endeveavor who would further discuss these ideas.


      • thejourneyisthelife says:

        First let me say I am so sorry! No excuses, no explanations. Secondly, I want to continue this conversation, however, I am on a tight schedule for the next 24 hours. I will circle back around over the weekend. Thank you for sharing. And again, I am sorry for the hurt you have felt from the church.


      • Dr. G says:

        Hi Diane,

        They’re treated badly in many instances whether they’re “labeled” or not. I checked out what I presume to be your blog. Is it fair to say that you’re opposed to the notion of attaching diagnoses to common mental health conditions? We have to use language that folks in the church will understand to get them to notice the problem.


    • Dr. G says:

      Thanks for your comments…that’s exactly what we’re trying to do…help churches embrace families of kids with disabilities. Shannon did a post last week specifically on the statistics related to mental health disability.


  4. Melody Cardenas says:

    Currently I am the Children’s Ministry Leader for our church. I have read your blog and several other blogs off and on for a about a year. My question is, “How do I locate members who have disabilities or parents with children who have disabilities?” If they are not coming to church how do I reach out to them. Unfortunately our church has gone through several changes and pastors over the past 10 years and no one has correct record or documentation of members with disabilities or parents of children with disabilities. How can I reach out to members and visitors and invite them to our church?


  5. anonymous says:

    If churches would step aside from the new programs geared toward reaching people and just really take the time to care, what a difference it could make. Church has changed drastically in the past 30 years. People just don’t have the time to get to know people anymore and special needs people and their families are more left out than ever. If you can’t “plug in” to one of the slots you are just left out. It is heartbreaking to try church after church and feel like no one even cares if your autistic child ever finds Jesus. Thank you for such a compassionate, insightful article.


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  12. Diane Chambers says:

    It was very refreshing to read this article. I initiated a Special Needs Ministry at my church and it is difficult to have the inclusion we would like to have. My son is Down’s Syndrome and at the first suggestion I was met with rejection but God is good and he allowed us to go forward. We have great teachers however, it has taken 3 1/2 years to get cards and pamphlets to pass out within our community or anyone we meet who is special and/or their families while other ministries have grown and surpassed our ministry. I am writing my mid-term paper regarding the need for inclusiveness and acceptance within our churches. I would like to volunteer for your efforts. Perhaps you can come to our church and speak regarding these issues and concerns.
    Thank you.


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