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Spokane Church Creates Inclusive Space for Those with Disabilities and Sensory Issues

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News Story by Matthew Kincanon | FāVS News

At Fowler United Methodist Church, the Rev. René Devantier, has created a space to welcome all people regardless of their abilities or disabilities. For him, he wants to make sure that nobody walks in and says they don’t feel welcomed.

That’s why this past year, the church has made renovations and changes to the service to accommodate and welcome people with physical and mental disabilities, and make it geared toward flexibility.

The challenge of attending church for those with disabilities

Devantier’s 19-year-old son, Ryan, has fragile X and autism, which made it hard for him to go to a regular church service. While Devantier has been a pastor for around 20 years, the church’s GoFundMe page said his son has only been to church a handful of times. To help caregivers and families with members like Ryan be together and worship together at church, renovations were made to accommodate people with disabilities.

Jill Ide, a mother who has a 28-year-old autistic son who has sensory issues, and currently works for the University of Washington Autism Center in Seattle, was thrilled when she learned the church was going to address this issue. She felt her son had been left out of the experience of going to church because of his sensory needs over the years.

A lot of the time, Devantier said churches have spaces for kids and adults with disabilities where they go into a separate room. However, he didn’t want that and sought to create an inclusive space where everyone can be together.

The renovations happened in parts. Devantier said it started around a year ago after they installed a ramp that goes up to the altar and made more changes to the church from there.

These changes included renovations outside the sanctuary, some pews were removed to allow more space in the sanctuary, changes were made to worship and sermons and work is being done to the main doors, among other renovations, so that people with and without disabilities can take something away. These changes allowed more movement and members of the congregation are accepting of any noise that’s made.

Creating an inclusive space for all people

Aside from the changes made during worship, they created a camp-themed sensory room for those with sensory issues. The room, called the fireside room, has a mural on all walls that depicts mountains and trees, along with an aquarium, a fireplace, a canoe and other things to make it fun and welcoming to people.

“If you have someone in the sanctuary that’s maybe too loud or too noisy and they need to take a step back, they can go back into that sensory room, which is right there and still be part of the worship,” Devantier said. “And when they’re ready they can come right back in.”

Ide said a team approach was taken to work on the room. Not only did the congregation as a whole have ideas, she said they consulted with an occupational therapist who brought in their expertise to the room and service.

A space suited for little people, too

For Ide, just having a space where people like her son could go if he got overwhelmed with the service was a blessing. Also, when she saw her 4-year-old granddaughter’s response to the space, she knew it addressed the needs of little people, too.

“She really touched and experienced the sensory spaces in her own way, and it was wonderful to see her reactions,” Ide said.

Aside from working at University of Washington, Ide served as director of community connections for the Northwest Autism Center and has over 15 years of experience in the field, talking with families regarding the autism journey.

“The most important thing this space says immediately is that anyone with a disability — whether seen or unseen — is welcome here,” Ide said. “When you encounter this space before you enter the worship service, you see that this congregation is trying to say, you fit here, you are needed here.”

Along with accommodations for those with autism and sensory issues, Devantier said their church allows people to bring in their seeing-eye dogs as well.

Walking into the Kingdom of God

“Everybody needs God in their life … but it seems like people with disabilities just haven’t had that chance because they’re so complicated sometimes to be around,” Devantier said. “People are nervous, they don’t know how to act or what to say, and our church wants people with any disability to come in and just be part of it.”

One memory that sticks out to Devantier was during their grand opening and while he was preaching, a nonverbal young man was sitting at his left. While they were preaching and singing songs, the young man loved it and sang with them despite being nonverbal. Even after the music ended he continued to sing. And as Devantier looked out to the congregation, he noticed no one was staring at the young man, which warmed his heart.

Inviting all people to the banquet

“As a Christian, we are taught to be inclusive of all people, the ones like us and those who are vulnerable and have special needs,” Ide said before quoting verses from the Gospel of Luke. “Jesus said when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

Devantier said the body of Christ is all different kinds of people, not just one.

“We have to embody the Kingdom of God on Earth right now, and that’s how we want to do it,” Devantier said. “When you walk into our church, we want you to walk into the Kingdom of God. And that means a lot of different things to a lot of different people, but that’s our challenge and that’s what I really feel like God is calling us to do.”

More information on the renovations can be found on the GoFundMe page.

Matthew Kincanon
Matthew Kincanon
Matthew Kincanon is a former Digital Content Producer with a journalism and political science degree from Gonzaga University. His journalism experience includes the Gonzaga Bulletin, The Spokesman-Review, Art Chowder magazine and SpokaneFāVS. He said he is excited to be a freelancer at SpokaneFāVS because, as a Spokane native, he wants to learn more about the various religious communities and cultures in his hometown.

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