Posted by Jenny Zappala

Is Neighborhood Church an accessible and inclusive Unitarian Universalist church, especially welcoming to people with disabilities? Member Maria Zuccarello is leading a new effort called the Accessibility and Inclusion Ministry (AIM) challenging Neighborhood to reach its fullest potential as a welcoming congregation.

“I wanted whatever church I attended to be welcoming, inclusive, and mindful of people with disabilities,” said Zuccarello, AIM’s chairwoman and a Neighborhood member for about five years. “When I was Catholic, I had participated in teaching catechism for people with disabilities. When the L.A. Archdiocese discontinued the program, for that, and many other reasons, I became disillusioned by the church.”

“I came to UUism and Neighborhood because of the belief of the ‘inherent worth and dignity of each human being,’” she said. “I figured somehow or other this was a good place to support the inclusion and integration of people with disabilities in community living. I did not know how to start it in any organized, concrete way until AIM was developed and gave it a blueprint.”

AIM is a certification project modeled after the Welcoming Congregation and Green Sanctuary Program. AIM is a joint program of the Unitarian Universalist Association and EqUUal Access, a Unitarian Universalist (UU) organization working to enable the full engagement of people with disabilities and their families in our congregations.  The goal of AIM is to certify congregations as welcoming, embracing, integrating and supporting people with disabilities and their families in our congregations. Its sacred challenge for congregations is recognizing the humanity and gifts of all people.

AIM “directly addresses the first principle, increases diversity and brings to light disability issues as social justice issues rather than medical or educational issues, as commonly thought,” said Zuccarello. “Despite gains in education and employment for people with disabilities, integration into community life has been slower going. People with disabilities typically have limited civic engagement — limited by themselves or their environment, depending.”

“Those who do integrate, many keep their disability or the responsibility of dealing with it to themselves,” she said. “The able-bodied are often in the dark as to needs and how to accommodate. AIM can change that.”

Sound like a good idea? AIM needs a few more helping hands to make Neighborhood Church a welcoming place. All you need are time to plan and time to represent the group. Special knowledge is always helpful but not required.

“We need (AIM) members to help with the dissemination of information, people with an ear to the ground, so to speak, regarding the needs of the church in light of disability or a willingness to find out,” said Zuccarello. “We need a variety of people who can help dissect the three-phase process of AIM certification and help plan activities accordingly.”

Zuccarello knows education can make a difference. She’s an elementary school resource specialist. She works primarily with kids with learning disabilities, autism, ADHD. You might have seen Zuccarello volunteering at the Marketplace table or at Youth Religious Education events.

“I have a disability — hearing loss and hydrocephalus (an abnormal accumulation of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) within the brain) — and have other medical issues from birth that placed me in special ed for a time and had affected, mostly mildly, my participation in work situations and social settings,” said Zuccarello.

“As a teacher, I enjoy that more people with disabilities are becoming better educated, going to college, etc. After schooling is done, though, many are still not integrating into the workplace or community for a variety of reasons. Forming this group feeds my need to do something about that in my ‘free time.’”

Education, like flyers and workshops, will be key. Did you know there are four types of disability?

1) Mobility impairments like quadriplegia, paraplegia, cerebral palsy and muscular dystrophy.

2) Neurological disabilities like autism, intellectual disability, hydrocephalus, learning disabilities and ADHD.

3) Mental illnesses like bipolar disorder, anxiety, depression, borderline personality disorder and schizophrenia.

4) Sensory disabilities like deafness, blindness and chemical sensitivities.

“This group will touch on several different issues the church holds near and dear,” Zuccarello said. “Being part of this volunteer opportunity would, in a way, make it easier to touch on many different issues.”

For more information, contact Maria Zuccarello, mariazu@prodigy.net, or Stephanie Ballard, social justice coordinator, sballard@neighborhooduu.org. And check out the website here: http://www.uua.org/accessibility/aim

By Jenny Lynn Zappala, NUUC Member & AIM committee member


One Response to Member Spotlight: Maria Zuccarello and AIM

  1. DeAnn Morris says:

    Thanks and many thanks to Maria for this fine work. This is incredibly important. If I were not so overextended at NUUC already, I would jump on board.

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