This issue focuses on the experiences of people with different abilities, shares stories of resilience and thriving, and offers examples of simple things we can do to create welcoming and healing spaces in our faith communities for those who are often on the outside. 

The impact of trauma in people who live with different abilities is significant. Individuals with disabilities are four times more likely to be victims of crimes as non-disabled (Sobsey, 1996); the rate of children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) experiencing sexual abuse is 16.6 percent compared to 8 percent for general population; when people enter the disability service system, their risk of abuse increases by 78 percent (Sobsey & Doe, 1991). 

Limited knowledge and verbal or social skills can increase their vulnerability to abuse and make it hard for them to tell someone or make sense of trauma if it happens.  
People who are differently abled experience stigma and marginalization, which is a trauma in and of itself. Let us not underestimate the healing power of simple acts of inclusion, blessing, respect and welcome, not only for the person themselves, but also for their families.

 And as Jeanne Davies points out in the articles below, “It turns out that when we make spaces more welcoming and nurturing for people with disabilities, we make spaces that are more welcoming and nurturing for all.”
Creating trauma-informed, welcoming spaces for all
By Jeanne Davies, Executive Director, Anabaptist Disabilities Network

When I was a pastor, I learned we had a few young people with autism in our youth group. In order to begin creating an environment that felt more comfortable, I provided a big basket of fidgets on the table in the center of the room. I expected that youth with autism would use them to help reduce anxiety and increase focus. What I didn’t expect was that everybody in the room would enjoy using them.

At our national youth conference, I created a sensory room so anyone who felt overwhelmed by the crowds, the social demands, and the stimulus of the conference could take a break and color, do prayer activities, work on a puzzle, or simply rest in a room that was quiet with low, warm lighting. Again, a diverse group of people made use of that room. One exhausted conference leader simply came in to lay on the floor with some pillows and take a nap. It turns out that when we make spaces more welcoming and nurturing for people with disabilities, we make spaces that are more welcoming and nurturing for all.

In order to create welcoming, comfortable environments, we must create spaces that are trauma-informed. People with disabilities experience a high incidence of trauma. And trauma itself can cause impairment or disability. We now know that the prevalence of trauma generally in our communities is much higher than we would have believed it to be. We all need trauma-informed communities and our faith communities are no exception.

Unfortunately, religious organizations were exempted from the Americans with Disabilities Act when it was created in 1990. Communities of faith have therefore been slow to make the changes that would make their facilities more accessible to people with disabilities. This includes some basic physical accommodations such as wheelchair ramps, automatic doors, accessible bathrooms, and elevators. But it also includes making accommodations for those with intellectual or developmental disabilities, mental illness, or other disabilities that create barriers to full participation in the life of faith communities.

Ben with his dad and grandfather at camp.
Jonah leading in prayer.
Jhanea and her grandmother on a summer service trip.
We all can make a difference
Dr. Tonja Williams has had a passion for working with individuals with disabilities, their caretakers and community for nearly 30 years. 

In fact, she always keeps a pen and paper handy at her bedside to jot down ideas on how she can best serve her clients. 

“Oftentimes I’m awakened with different thoughts: ‘How could I help this person?’ ‘How could I bless that person?’ ‘How could I be prepared for the call and outreach that may come?’,” she says. “I take my work to bed with me. I marinate on it, pray on it, and dream on it.”

Tonja is founder of T.WMS. Consulting, LLC and TMW Edu-Sulting, which offer a wide range of business, education, advocacy, coaching and legal services for differently abled and diverse population from all walks of life. Tonja also is an independent associate with a global legal shield service, which has equipped her to help her clients create transition and protection plans for families.

Her work includes offering 504 and Individualized Education Plan evaluations, transition planning, career coaching, job readiness and college-planning services, assistance in searching for vocational programs, and other support services. 

Leaning on her knowledge and vast experience, which includes education, child welfare, restorative practices, training, and juvenile justice, Tonja spoke with the Chicagoland Trauma Informed Congregations Network about the ways we can all make a difference in the lives of individuals living with disabilities.

Create a sense of belonging. “It’s not just about including people – it’s also about saying, ‘We need you here. We need you at the table,’” Tonja said. “Create an inclusive and welcoming environment and find ways for differently abled individuals to participate and share.”
Offer peer-to-peer programming. “Welcome individuals with disabilities into your programming where they could be linked with traditional peers,” Tonja said. “They learn this is still your peer, but he/she just communicates and learns differently.”

“This can teach young people leadership skills and compassion,” she added. “It can help them learn how to welcome inclusion. You’d be surprised by some of the relationships that develop. And their parents are flabbergasted. One of the prayers of a parent who has a disabled child is that their child has a friend. And oftentimes because of the isolation and limitations they don’t have friendships outside of their family.”

People-First language: communicating respectfully about individuals with disabilities
People-first language is used to communicate appropriately and respectfully with and about an individual with a disability. People-first language emphasizes the person first, not the disability. For example, when referring to a person with a disability, refer to the person first, by using phrases such as, “a person who …”, “a person with …” or, “person who has …”

Click on the infographic to the right for some general tips you can follow.

Learn more at the Office of Disability Rights and the CDC.
No dream is too big – Meet Lindsey, a star of a virtual Les Misérables production

Lindsey Pazerunas, 26, has never let life’s obstacles stand in her way. From beating leukemia at the young age of seven to navigating virtual interactions during COVID-19, she hasn’t slowed down.

Pazerunas’ passion for singing, dancing and acting has led her to star in a recent virtual production of Les Misérables as Courfeyrac.

“Through UPS for DownS, we produce a lot of plays,” says Pazerunas. “Because of COVID, we have changed the format to a virtual production. With the help of my parents, I have created a green screen and studio at home to practice for my role.”

Her mom Sandy Pazerunas has been her greatest supporter. The mother-daughter duo started the Give Back club in 2020. With nearly 40 members, they’ve provided lunches to homeless shelters, created Valentine’s Day cards, and are currently making mats for animal shelters.

“As a parent of someone with Down syndrome, family support and community involvement are two important fundamentals to help your child achieve their best and follow their dreams,” says Sandy Pazerunas. “Staying connected to centers like the Adult Down Syndrome Center has helped bring Lindsey’s visions to life and make them bigger than we ever envisioned.”

Recently, Dr. Brian Chicoine, medical director of the Adult Down Syndrome Center in Park Ridge, Ill., was one of the nation’s panel of experts who authored the first ever, evidence-based medical guidelines for adults with Down syndrome.

“The original, nonformal guidelines were created almost 30 years ago,” says Dr. Chicoine. “What we have achieved here with the publication of evidence-based guidelines will significantly impact the care of people with Down syndrome across the country.”
The guidelines were supported by the Global Down Syndrome Foundation (GLOBAL) and published in the October 2020 issue of JAMA. The guidelines are available at no cost for personal or clinical use.

The Adult Down Syndrome Center is a clinic in Park Ridge, Illinois, devoted to adolescents and adults with Down syndrome. The Center provides comprehensive, holistic, community-based care and services using a team approach. In addition to patient care, the Center offers a variety of online classes and programs and collaborates on national and international projects including the GLOBAL Medical Care Guidelines for Adults with Down Syndrome.

'I live a beautiful life': What wheelchair users wish you knew – and what to stop asking
By David Oliver, USA TODAY

People in wheelchairs encounter those questions regularly – and want people to know they are not OK to ask.

"I hate when people ask me 'What happened?'" says Lucy Trieshmann, 26. "That question reduces and objectifies me, as if the only thing interesting about me is why I use a wheelchair."

More than 61 million adults in the U.S. have a disability, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Of those, 13.7% have a mobility condition that makes walking or taking the stairs difficult.

But just because you can see someone's disability doesn't give you the right ask about it. Here's a look at what wheelchair users wish you knew:

Paul Amadeus Lane
Location: Adelanto, California
Occupation: Broadcast media professional, accessibility consultant

What do you wish people knew about being in a wheelchair?

  • "Just because we are in wheelchairs doesn't mean that we're not happy. Even though we deal with challenging circumstances, we live a very happy and fulfilling life."
  • "Some people think that everybody in the wheelchair can walk and just don't want to walk. Many of us have lost the ability to walk due to an injury or an illness."
  • "We enjoy being included in the conversation. I know for me personally when I'm with my wife, everyone talks to her and not me. It's as though I don't exist and that if they look at me long enough they feel they may become disabled by osmosis."

What is the biggest misconception people have about you? "That I am not able to perform certain tasks without even giving me the opportunity to do so. Also, another misconception is that because a person is in the wheelchair they shouldn't be in relationships and get married. They feel because of my disability that I'm not able to live a fun, productive life."

Healthy Choices Healthy Futures Toolkit available
We all want babies to be born strong and healthy and mothers to deliver them safely with care for their own well-being.

Unfortunately, babies often are born before term or die before their first birthday and mothers are still dying during childbirth at alarming rates, especially in communities of color where the stress of racism and discrimination wears on women’s bodies.

The good news is that this is preventable!

Faith communities can help protect mothers and babies by connecting them to trustworthy resources and surrounding them with love and support.  EverThrive Illinois has created a Healthy Choices Healthy Futures Toolkit to allow helpers to connect with tested, evidence-based programs and educational materials to share with parents.

Topics include family planning and care before and in between pregnancies, healthy practices during pregnancy, and what to do after delivery to support a baby’s health. See an overview of the toolkit here.
Upcoming events

Aug. 17, 1:00-2:15 p.m.

With the uptick of targeted violence and safety and security concerns of faith and community groups, the DHS Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships in partnership with the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships and the Department of Justice, Community Relations Services is hosting a webinar to highlight faith and community based approaches to ensure the safety of houses of worship in the US and in Europe.

Aug. 18, noon-1:30 p.m.

Mikva Challenge is hosting a State of Chicago Youth Town Hall to amplify the policy ideas and visions of Chicago's aspiring youth leaders. Join us to be the first to hear what young people participating in Mikva Challenge programs have to say about the solutions we need in public sectors including health, education, juvenile justice and community safety. At the Town Hall, young people will present a summary of their policy advocacy to ensure Chicago institutions are more equitable and responsive.

Aug. 25, noon-1:00 p.m.

As the nation has grappled with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, faith-based institutions have proven to be a great source of information, hope, and comfort for families across the country. Throughout the pandemic, faith institutions and leaders have continued to provide families with critical services and support.

Too Small to Fail, the early childhood initiative of the Clinton Foundation, recognizes the positive impacts that faith leaders and institutions provide for families.

Too Small to Fail will feature faith-based leaders who have implemented an early learning strategy in their local faith institutions, and will share best practices, lessons learned, and recommendations for integrating early brain and language development into faith spaces. You also will hear from national leaders who have built programs in faith-based communities across the country.

We have experienced the collective trauma of a global pandemic which affected us in myriad of ways. Some of us had to deal with fear, anxiety, loss, and grief. It is important that we begin the healing process. The Muslim Endorsement Council, Inc. (MEC) is supporting you in this process. MEC endorses Muslim chaplains who are the frontline religious supporters in prisons, hospitals, universities, communities, armed forces, etc.

Join us to explore how we can go through this process of healing together. This webinar is pertinent to everyone, especially husbands and wives, and parents. Topics include collective family healing and parenting childing experiencing trauma. Imam Suhaib Webb will expound upon the Quranic principles and Prophetic practices of healing through collective trauma. Our other speakers are an author-educator and a licensed professional counselor.

Aug. 28-29
Camp Bullfrog Lake
Willow Springs, IL

The Forest Preserves of Cook County is partnering to offer an event for individuals with physical disabilities and their friends and families: Without Limits: Camping For All. This is a free introductory camping event that provides a rich and challenging outdoor adventure experience. In partnership with Adaptive Adventures, we are able to offer on overnight camping experience (site, food and some gear included) with adaptive cycling and kayaking, as well.

Nov. 6, 10:00 a.m.-3:30 p.m.

While persons of diverse abilities and their families live throughout our communities, the church has been challenged to move beyond accommodation to full inclusion. Imagine how the well-being of everyone in the church would be strengthened by being fully welcoming of persons of all abilities, reflecting the kingdom of God. Working together congregations and healthcare professionals can collaborate in responding faithfully to the challenge of disabilities, considering what can be done together that neither can do alone. This fourth biennial faith and health symposium is provided by North Park Theological Seminary and North Park University School of Nursing and Health Sciences as education for healthcare and ministry professionals in service to the church. The Good Shepherd Initiative is a sponsor.
Trauma-informed resources

Becoming a Trauma-Informed Faith Community, a resource from the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship.

Risking Connection in Faith Communities, Sidran Institute. As many as one in four of the people you encounter may have been deeply wounded by life experiences. This book focuses on the healing role that clergy of all denominations can play in the lives of trauma survivors in their congregations.

Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), CDC. Learn how your faith community can prevent ACEs in your community by assuring safe, stable, nurturing relationships and environments.

Sacred Series Toolkit: Becoming a Trauma-Informed Faith Community, Partners in Health and Wholeness, an initiative of the North Carolina Council of Churches.

The Body Keeps Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, by Bessel van der Kolk. Summarizes decades of research on how trauma affects bodies, brains, and psyches. And how unresolved trauma often leads to feeling fearful, anxious, stressed, and unsafe, and engaging in risky, addictive, and isolating behaviors. Yet what traumatized people often fear most—human connection—is the path to health.

American Psychological Association offers articles and publications on a variety of topics related to trauma.
We welcome your submissions for future issues of the Chicagoland Trauma Informed Congregations Network newsletter.

Please contact Cindy Novak if you have an event, resource or story you'd like to share. Thank you!