This past week, I have spent a lot of my time working on various projects involving the baptisms of individuals with disabilities across various Christian traditions. While variations exist between Christian traditions and faith communities, such as believer’s baptism versus infant baptism, or the different modes of baptism such as sprinkling, pouring, or full immersion, the implications of these differences can have many effects on individuals with disabilities. In today’s post, I thought I would talk about some challenges that may arise for clergy or faith communities when people with disabilities or their families express a desire for baptism and how one can avoid these challenges to best create an atmosphere of belonging through the use of this sacred ritual.
Considerations for Physical Disabilities
In traditions where it is more common for older children and adults to be baptized, it is important to consider safety considerations for people with physical disabilities while still offering baptism to them in the least restrictive way and through a mode that they feel most comfortable with both physically and theologically. Even for a typical older adult who may claim no disabilities, having them take a step into a baptismal font could quickly turn into a fall risk. For churches that only use modes of baptism that require entry into a baptismal font, such as full immersion or affusion (pouring), it may be beneficial to consider adding some basic fall prevention equipment, such as a non-slip mat or grab bars near the font for people who are considered a fall risk.
When transferring into the baptismal font, it would be best to have a family member, care taker, or trained staff to help people with physical disabilities into the font, as those without transfer training are at risk for hurting themselves or the individual being baptized. In situations where the individual will be transferred from one surface to another, if someone at your church has experience in transfers, it may be a good idea to have a gait belt on hand, as it is always a better idea to assist someone around their waist rather than at the armpits, which could cause injury. If the person being baptized is a wheelchair user, it would be beneficial to have a conversation about which mode of baptism they feel most comfortable with. A good option for those who do not wish to be sprinkled may be having the individual tilt back in their wheelchair or have them transfer into a chair that can get for pouring. In cases of severe physical disability where full immersion is considered the only viable option for baptism and if the community allows for it, a church may wish to contact a facility with a pool designed for use by individuals with disabilities, such as an aquatic therapy facility.
Neurological Illnesses and Injuries
Much like people with physical disabilities, people with neurological illnesses or injuries that result in disability can face discrimination and barriers to baptism. After stroke, traumatic brain injury, or spinal cord injury, people can experience pain or sensitivity when interacting with water. While people with these types of injuries would likely be able to work with their pastors to communicate their needs if they desire baptism while still experiencing these symptoms, it is something I felt should be included with this blog post for occupational therapists to consider when addressing spirituality/religion with their neuro patients. After life changing neurological injuries or the onset of degenerative neurological illnesses, patients may experience new changes in their relationship with faith, and if occupational therapists attune to their patients’ spiritual needs, patients may feel more empowered to engage in desired faith-based occupations such as baptism.
Sensory Processing Disorder
Like the cases listed above, people with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), often associated with Autism Spectrum Disorder, can experience unpleasant sensations when being immersed in water. To assist an autistic person or a person with SPD to prepare for baptism, a church may consider allowing a close family member to assist with the baptism, to alter the temperature of the water, and to consider modes of baptism that would make the person most comfortable. Allowing the individual to partake in practice run and letting them become familiar with the space in which the baptism will occur can also help them desensitize the experience.
Intellectual and Developmental Disability
In many evangelical churches in the United States, individuals are asked to share a testimony or insight into their faith life with people in their community in order to be baptized. In these churches, people with intellectual and developmental disabilities can be easily excluded from becoming baptized due to their alternative ways of communicating a relationship with Jesus Christ. In these situations, it is best to remember that people with intellectual and developmental disabilities should be respected as people who often are able to make decisions on their own. Even if an individual is a non-speaker, it is likely that through their actions and relationships with others, a desire to be a disciple of Jesus can be communicated and displayed for others to witness. While many churches struggle to be fully inclusive of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, including them in baptism, no matter the church’s theology on baptism, can be a visible sign to the community that these people belong to the Body of Christ. Additionally, if your church is concerned about a person with an intellectual disability’s understanding of the Gospels because of your requirements for a profession of faith, you may want to first ask yourself if you have made the teachings of your church fully accessible to all members of the church. Without providing accessible catechesis, it would be unfair to make a judgement on a person with an intellectual disability’s ability to comprehend the teachings of your church.
One Last Tip Considering Infant Baptism…
In most cases, infant baptism can be relatively non-complex, either performed in a church or by a trained hospital chaplain who would likely have experience baptizing infants with complex medical needs. However, one tip I have for pastors and clergy who often baptize infants is to familiarize yourself with the Moro reflex. The Moro reflex, sometimes called the “startle reflex” is a primitive reflex developed by babies in utero that generally fades away by the time the child is around six months old. This reflex is a protective response that most all of us were born with that elicits a response in a child’s nervous system when the child feels the sensation of falling backwards. When the infant feels they are falling, they may begin to fling their arms up and out, become tense, and start to cry. Anecdotally, in my time attending churches where infant baptism is celebrated, if the pastor or parent does not have a supportive hold on the child’s head and heck or if the infant is tilted back too quickly, the child’s Moro reflex will be elicited, accidentally causing the child to go into fight-or-flight and begin to cry. While crying is of course common as well if the child is surprised by or sensitive to the water, becoming aware of this reflex can help pastors, parents, and Godparents create a more comfortable experience for the child as they are welcomed into the Church.
As always, the tips above are just some ideas that I had as an occupational therapy student considering the great gift of baptism that has personally shaped my life in many ways. If you or someone you know are struggling to obtain baptism because of disability, it may be helpful to reach out to an occupational therapist or another healthcare practitioner to help make this sacred ritual more accessible to all. While some churches do not believe baptism is required for church membership nor that it has an affect on salvation, it is my opinion that the choice to be baptized should be open to all individuals and that churches should do their best to make it available for all people instead of excluding disabled folks by making baptism inaccessible. If you have any comments, suggestions, or questions, or you feel I may be able to provide some insight or advice for you regarding baptisms in your own community, feel free to contact me.