Middlesex conference calls congregants with disabilities back to church

| Saturday, April 13, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Steve and Judy Baird have taken their son, Keith, who is autistic, to Gospel Fellowship Presbyterian church in Valencia since he was a young boy.

Some who have relatives with disabilities stop going.

“He has been going to this church since he was born. He has attended Sunday school there and likes to be involved in activities. He's gone on overnighters with church groups and to places like Wildwood Highlands,” said Judy Baird of Valencia.

Yet Keith Baird's involvement with his church might be the exception rather than the rule, say some church officials, including his pastor, Nick Protos.

“Families with a disabled person often stop going to church. We need to raise awareness of this and change it,” Protos said.

This month, Gospel Fellowship will host a three-day disability conference that focuses on how churches can accommodate and serve people with disabilities.

“I am thrilled that there is a church in Western Pennsylvania having a conference on people with disabilities. This is an area of great concern for me,” said Ginny Thornburgh, director of the Interfaith Initiative at the American Association of People With Disabilities in Washington, D.C.

Thornburgh's husband, Dick Thornburgh, is a former Pennsylvania governor and was attorney general during the Reagan and first Bush administrations. He also was the latter's point man to promote the Americans With Disabilities Act, which was signed into law in 1990.

About 54 million Americans have some kind of disability, according to the association.

While the ADA exempts religious organizations, many churches now say they feel the need to accommodate people with disabilities, said Stephanie Hubach, chairperson of the Special Needs Committee of Reformed Presbyterian Church and author of Same Light Different Boat.

“People with disabilities often live at the fringes of congregational life or stop going to church altogether,” she said.

Hubach will lead the Disability Ministry Conference at the Gospel Fellowship Presbyterian Church in Middlesex on April 19, 20 and 21.

“We want to make the gospel accessible to all in terms of need — so that the blind can see it, the deaf can hear it and people with intellectual disabilities can understand it,” said Hubach, whose son, Tim Hubach, 21, has Down syndrome and plays the drums in the Praise Band at his church in Ephrata, Lancaster County.

Gospel Fellowship has about 225 members and is smaller than many of the area's churches. For years, the church has done what it can to accommodate people with disabilities, says Rob Olszewski, a member of the church since he was a boy and now a deacon there.

Olszewski, who teachers at Butler Community College and has cerebral palsy, said he hopes the reach of the conference extends well beyond his church. “We have reached out to 52 churches in the area. This, we think, is something that can be useful to any church,” he said.

Churches with special needs ministries have developed programs and worship services for the blind and hearing impaired.

One group some churches are reaching out to is people diagnosed with autism and their families.

“There seems to be such resistance to attending church among families affected by autism. They are worried about what people think,” said the Rev. Dan Turney, pastor of Christian Community Church in Richland.

Turney, whose nondenominational church features contemporary music, founded an autism support group at the church and now has special services for people with autism.

“It's a low-key worship service. For people with autism, loud music means sensory overload and distractions,” he said.

Since the ADA became law, its biggest impact has been in adaptations to public buildings and public transportation — everything from wheelchair ramps and lifts to Braille elevator controls.

In that same period there were major changes in the way people with disabilities are treated, said Amy Badger, director of Butler County's Mental Health/Early Intervention/Intellectual Disabilities Program.

“The biggest change is more individual care for people, keeping people in their community. Housing intellectually disabled people in group homes used to be much more common than it is now,” Badger said.

Rick Wills is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7944 or at rwills@tribweb.com.

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