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Aaron Keller, pastor of Open Bible Church of Waterloo, Iowa, has been featured by news agencies across the country interested in his church’s ministry to those with disabilities. The story has been aired on local television stations and featured in numerous newspapers. It seems not many churches focus on those with special needs even though the need is great.

  • According to the National Organization on Disability, nearly one-fifth of all Americans (more than 54 million men, women, and children) have a physical, sensory, or intellectual disability.

  • According to 2007 Census survey data, more than 41 million Americans, or almost 15 percent of the population age 5 and older, have some type of disability. Among children ages 5 to 15, 6.2 percent, or 2.8 million kids, have disabilities.

  • According to the U.S. Census Bureau, nearly 20 percent of Americans between the ages of 16 and 64 suffer some form of physical, mental, or emotional impairment. Thanks to improved medical technology many of them are outliving their parents.

Keller-webAaron and Wendy, his wife, didn’t need to read these statistics to make them aware of these issues. The Kellers have four children, three of whom are on the autism spectrum. A few awkward situations in public left them living as near recluses, not wanting the gazes.

For instance, one of the Kellers’ sons has Tourette syndrome, a neurological disorder that involves repetitive movements or unwanted sounds (tics) that can’t be easily controlled. Their son will bark like a dog. One day the family had been excited to eat out at a taco place, but when their son made barking noises, a grown man started meowing like a cat. Every time their son would bark, the man would meow. The Kellers finally left, another family outing ruined.

Keller3-webFor families dealing with disabilities, attending a church service can be disheartening as well. Most people who have family members with disabilities don’t feel welcome in churches either because their family member is considered too distracting or because the church is not equipped to deal with their specific needs.

Aaron slowly realized that his church could help minister to families like his. He said, “Last year ministry was going well, but I felt I was not ministering to my own kids. I was so focused on the health and the growth of the church that my kids were in the background. I was seriously considering leaving the ministry. It’s tough when you don’t have programs that work for your own kids. God spoke clearly to me: ‘I want you to deal with special needs families.’”

Keller2-webKeller prepared his church staff and building to better serve the special needs community. His staff adjusted the lighting, provided over-the-ear headphones, and included empty space behind the seating area so kids can pace. They renovated classrooms into “sensory learning rooms” that feature dimmed lighting, instrumental background music, tactile walls, and weighted blankets. Wendy Keller oversees the program. She and Aaron have trained staff and volunteers to be more caring of stressed parents who may feel their families aren’t welcome if their child is being disruptive during church services.

“It’s one thing to say that you’re going to do special needs as a secondary ministry,” Aaron said, “but that’s not what parents of someone with special needs want. Inclusion is what they want.

Keller4-web“Our church’s response has been amazing. People are stepping up to volunteer. So are we a special needs church now? Absolutely not. We are special needs focused. Our purpose statement is to be a church for every ability. Chances are that only one person in a family has special needs; the rest do not. We have to minister to both.”
When the church launched the new emphasis last fall, two new families attended. Although service hadn’t even started, both families were fighting back tears as they walked through the church doors. Neither had been welcomed anywhere else.

Aaron concludes, “We couldn’t be in a more perfect situation. We are blessed to be with the right people for this. God knows what He’s doing.”

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Since 1920, Message of the Open Bible has been a medium to celebrate all the wonderful things God is doing through His people in Open Bible Churches – from personal testimonies, to news-related stories, to inspirational articles by quality authors.