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Empowerment for those with physical disabilities (UMCom)

March 6, 2023

Tennis, rock climbing, half-marathons and other sports activities have filled Amy Saffell’s calendar since she was a young child. Opportunities to participate were plentiful in her native Atlanta, Georgia, but when she moved to Tennessee after graduating college, she found that some kids didn’t have the same experience.

Saffell plays adaptive sports for those with physical disabilities. She has spina bifida and has always used a wheelchair. Many people with similar disabilities struggle to find sports leagues they can join, but when they do, they find much more than fun – they discover a source of support, community, mentorship and empowerment.

“A lot of parents just don’t know what’s out there in terms of adaptive sports. Or in terms of their kid’s capability and being independent,” Saffell says.

Independence through adaptive sports

Saffell began volunteering for ABLE Youth, a non-profit organization where children are taught to Adapt, Believe, Love and Enjoy life; she then became the executive director in 2016.

She explains, “Special Olympics is for kids with intellectual disabilities but our kids only have physical disabilities. Our organization is the only of its kind in Tennessee. … We help kids learn to be independent using adaptive sports as a motivating catalyst for that.

“Our ultimate goal is to see kids learn to be independent, but a lot of times they think, ‘Well, what for? What can I do with my life?’ We help them learn how much they can do. That helps them see: ‘There is a path forward for me to play sports, to do recreational activities, to have a job, to go to college or live independently.’”

Saffell doesn’t spend a lot of time on the sidelines. “There are a lot of things that I get to do alongside our kids because they need people who’ve been where they are and who look like them to be able to emulate,” she says.

Kids as young as two can join ABLE Youth, and many continue through high school graduation, when the program helps them transition into their next phase of life. Older kids often serve as mentors, teaching the younger kids new things.

“I love getting them younger because that means they’ll learn what they can do before anyone tells them that they can’t.” – Amy Saffell, executive director of ABLE Youth

ABLE Youth also offers an independence camp for kids over ten years old. They learn how to do household chores, such as washing dishes and making their bed. Saffell elaborates, “Those are things they need to know how to do and that they can do, they just have to be taught how to do it because the way that they do it will be different than their parents and their siblings and their friends, but their ability to do it is still there.”

The importance of a warm welcome

Also a lifelong United Methodist, Saffell is an active member and volunteer at Christ United Methodist Church in Franklin, Tennessee.

“I think people may have the misconception that because I use a wheelchair and have a disability that my life is sometimes more challenging than other people, and I don’t think that’s true,” shares Saffell. “I think that everybody’s life is challenging, it’s just what your challenges are and what different obstacles you face. I think we all need a place to go to find strength and peace and understanding, and for me, church has been a great place to find that.”

During Saffell’s first visit to Christ UMC, the pastor invited her to be involved in leading worship or in other ministry areas. The pastor was quick to admit the current sanctuary wasn’t equipped with a ramp leading to the pulpit area, but a new sanctuary was under construction, with more accessibility in place.

“That was so empowering to me, to be able to find a church that was welcoming – intentionally welcoming,” Saffell says. “He came up to me, sought me out, and said, ‘We want you here, we want you to be involved.’ That was really great.

“I am really grateful for my church and really grateful for all of the people I’ve met there. I have found it to be a place where I can feel like I belong and that other people are happy to be there to support me personally and ABLE Youth.”

How to be more inclusive of those with physical disabilities

Amy Saffell shares these suggestions:

  • Don’t insist upon helping someone. For example, pushing someone’s wheelchair not only takes away their autonomy, it can also put them in unsafe situations. Ask if someone would like help and accept their answer.
  • Focus on accessibility. Ensure that everyone who would like to participate in church events and activities has the chance to do so. If you are unsure if this is the case, simply ask someone with a physical disability how they feel about the space and the plans you’ve made.
  • Invite people with physical disabilities to lead worship and other ministries. You should also ask them to serve on committees and planning teams so that they can voice their ideas about how accessibility can be prioritized.
  • Don’t force people with physical disabilities to align with your plans. While it’s helpful to have a wheelchair-specific area in the sanctuary, for example, allow people the freedom to sit wherever they’d like. Segregating them from friends or family members is counterproductive.
  • Don’t make assumptions. Preconceived notions and biases hurt ourselves, our communities and our siblings in Christ who we don’t truly know. Make connections, nurture relationships and learn from each other.

Learn more and find resources from the Disability Ministries Committee of The United Methodist Church.