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  • Writer's pictureBethany

Interpersonal Touch in an Ability-Inclusive Church

So far we've intentionally kept our gatherings pretty small, and have not publicly announced our specific meeting location. We've also tried to make sure (and successfully, so far) that there is a mix of folks both with and without intellectual disabilities at every gathering. This is to give us an opportunity to try things out on a smaller scale as we experiment with different rituals and practices and set-ups, and to adjust as necessary. This will help us put some structures in place to try to be as thoughtful and welcoming as possible as we move forward, as we invite more folks to join with us. (Of course, the need to adjust and experiment and change course will be ongoing forever!) One thing that came up early on was the need to think about how to make room for folks who have different levels of comfort with physical touch, especially when they may not be able to express that to others in the moment, for whatever reason.

For some people with intellectual disabilities who may have more difficulty discerning who may be a safe or unsafe person to share more personal bodily touch with, it can be an important part of their safety to have more boundaries around hugs and touch. But at the same time, they may not always be able to express those boundaries themselves. It can also be the case that other folks may really enjoy hugging everyone, and it may be a struggle for some of those huggers to stop to inquire whether these hugs are wanted or appreciated. This mix of things came up for us.

Our current way of responding to this, that has worked pretty well so far, is a color-coded name tag system, based on the colors of a stoplight (something folks tend to learn about at a pretty young age, so it's also a more accessible abstract concept than some others).

This is how we're doing things now, but no doubt it will evolve as a practice over time. And maybe we'll end up scrapping it altogether. But that's all part of the learning process!

For now, when people come into the space, they (along with input/assistance from a friend/family member/caregiver/SO, as necessary) will write their name on a name tag that has a border that is either red, yellow, or green. The color indicates the level of touch they are open to receiving from others:

Red: A wave or a smile is great! (No touching.)

Yellow: A handshake or high-5 is great!

Green: A hug would be great!

While developed specifically with folks with intellectual disabilities in mind, other people have appreciated it as well. That's something often true for structures or practices created to increase accessibility; they often end up benefiting many others in the community too (such as: elevators, curb cutouts, speech-to-text, text-to-speech, etc etc etc).

One thing about this system is that it relies on someone being able to see the color on the name tags to know what kind of touch someone would appreciate. So we'll discover how/whether this might need to be adapted if/when we have people who are blind or with visual impairments in the community (tho others will be able to see their tag). For folks I've known who are blind, they have tended to communicate pretty explicitly about the type of touch they are open to in a greeting (even if it's just by extending a hand in my direction); but no doubt that community must have its share of enthusiastic huggers just like any other group!

If you have other ways you create a hospitable space in your church as it comes to different levels of touch that are helpful for different folks, especially people who may not always be able to communicate their preferences directly, I'd love to hear about them!

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