Anyone who has spoken to me for more than a few minutes will tell you that I’m pretty passionate about churches being accessible to disabled people and those with additional needs. But why do they need to be? Surely if they turn up each week, that’s enough, isn’t it? Personally, I don’t think it is. They may be turning up, but do they struggle to access the building and, once they’ve finally made it into the building are they able to access what is going on & understand it? Are they able to do more than just hand out the Bibles or make the drinks after the service? Are they talked to as friends or is it more of a case of being ignored? It’s estimated that 90% of disabled people don’t attend church and, to be fair, if I didn’t feel like I was being welcomed, I wouldn’t want to show up either.
John 3 verse 16 says ” For God so loved the world that he sent his one and only Son. Anyone who believes in him will not die, but have eternal life.” It says anyone – God doesn’t exclude anybody and neither should we. If you look at who Jesus spent time with you’ll see that he spent it with women, children, those who were sick or disabled, prostitutes and tax collectors. These were all people who were rejected by society at that time. One thing that Covid-19 has shown us is that the sick and disabled people can still be an afterthought in today’s society. We saw ‘Do Not Resuscitate’ orders placed on disabled people’s hospital notes without their or their family’s knowledge or permission. We also heard regularly on the news that it was really only those with underlying conditions that were likely to die from the virus as if that was in some way ok. Disabled people might be an afterthought when it comes to society, but let’s not let them be an afterthought in the Church. Church should be a place where everyone can be welcomed, included and feel like they belong.
So what are some of the things that you can do to help make church a place of inclusion and belonging for disabled people?
Talk to the experts!
Talk to the disabled members of your church as they are the experts on their own disability! Find out if there’s anything that makes church difficult to attend. It might be physically getting to the church, getting into the building or some other difficulty once they’re inside (too much noise, lights are too bright, unable to hear what’s being said etc.). There’s a saying in the disability community that says “Nothing about us, without us!”, so make sure the disabled person is included in the discussions about how things can be improved to help them!
This may seem like an obvious comment, but make friends with the disabled people in your church. So often members of the church will talk to the family members who have come to church, but ignore the disabled person. Just because someone is autistic, deaf, blind, a wheelchair user etc. doesn’t meant that they can’t communicate! Even if the person is non verbal, they will still be able to communicate – you just need to communicate their way. By befriending disabled people in the church you’re actually saying “You matter and you’re important to me and to God” You’ll also start seeing them as someone made in God’s image (and that has to be a good thing!)
Use their gifts!
Once you’ve had chance to get to know them, you’ll find that disabled people have gifts that God has given them (just like non disabled people). However, do they get a chance to use them in your church or, as I mentioned earlier, are they limited to handing out Bibles and making tea? I hope it’s the former and not the latter (unless, of course, they make amazing cups of tea!). When I became the Inclusion Champion at my previous church I was determined that everybody should be encouraged to use their God given gifts. There were a couple of guys who loved drawing and colouring, so I asked if they’d like to do a drawing to illustrate a Bible verse or story. The picture at the beginning of this blog is just one of the pictures that was produced and put up in the church. I received several more pictures over the coming months. It was such a simple thing to ask them to do, but they were so pleased to be asked do them and it made them feel liked they belonged at the church. Another example is my son, Kieran, who has Aspergers. He loves all things to do with technology and has helped on the sound desk at church for several years. Recently this has expanded to editing online services and helping to livestream services too. This all happened due to someone spotting his gifting and asking him to be involved. Maybe there’s someone in your church who could lead worship, preach, do the Bible reading, be part of the prayer team etc. but because they have a disability they’ve been overlooked. What blessings could you be missing out on because they’ve been overlooked?
Consider appointing an Inclusion Champion – someone who is willing to look at what your church does and pull together the strategy, resources and planning needed to make your church accessible. They can also be a point of contact for the disabled members of your church. This doesn’t need to be a paid role and the person fulfilling this role doesn’t have to be an expert on disability (although having some knowledge can be helpful) – as I’ve already said, the disabled people in your church are the experts. However, the person does need to be willing to look at what is already done through the eyes of those who are disabled and see what reasonable adjustments can be made to make things easier for them. As someone who has done this role, I can totally recommend being an Inclusion Champion. However, it doesn’t mean that the rest of the church can sit back and leave inclusion to the Inclusion Champion – everyone can be involved in some way!
Training and advice
I would recommend arranging for someone to come and provide training for people in your church. There will be a lot of good help, ideas and information given in the training, so do try and get as many people from your church to come along. There are several people and organisations who provide disability inclusion training for churches, including Through The Roof, Count Everyone In and Urban Saints. Of course, due to Covid-19 restrictions, training is being done via Zoom at the moment. I have done all four of the Urban Saints courses and can highly recommend them. Whichever course you do, it will really help you recognise where extra support might be needed.
If you have children and young people in your church with additional needs and disabilities you can get help and support via the Additional Needs Alliance. They have a website and a Facebook group. The Facebook group has over 2,500 members, made up of church leaders, parents/carers, Inclusion Champions, people who do training and most importantly people who have additional needs/disabilities. There is always someone who will know an answer to your question because they’ve come across it too! The Facebook group is set to Private, so you will need to ask to join and answer a couple of questions before being accepted (don’t worry, they’re not difficult!) The website also has a list of accessible churches, so if your church is accessible, why not add it on to the list too? Both the Facebook group and the website have many resources to help your church become more accessible so do check them out.
Once you or your Inclusion Champion have had a chance to discover what needs there are, there is a good chance that you may need to get some extra resources to help give support. It’s great if your church has a huge amount of money going spare (although I have yet to know of a church like this!), but if it doesn’t, don’t worry as it really doesn’t have to be expensive.
- Signed songs: Why not, as a church, learn how to sign some songs in either Sign Language or Makaton. There are plenty on YouTube – just search Doug Horley, John Hardwick or Becky George. Becky has also signed some church liturgy and Bible verses in Makaton too.
- Large Print Resources: Make sure that if you have a printed notice sheet, that there are also some large print copies available too. It’s quite easy to do using either a photocopier or by changing the font/paper size on the original document. Also check whether you have large print Bibles. If you don’t, consider getting some – if funds are limited, why not ask church members to buy a large print Bible and donate it to the church (do remember to specify which version you want!). Personally, I would opt for the NIrV Accessible Edition as it’s not only large print but accessible in so many other ways too (find out more here).
- Fidget toys and calm area: For many people with additional needs sensory overload can be quite common, so try and provide a quiet area where someone who is finding it difficult can go to relax. Have some seating there and provide some calming lighting, along with ear defenders and some sensory items to help them manage and regulate the sensory input. Whenever I pop to the shops I just keep an eye out for anything that could be a good fidget toy. Spiral hair bands, chenille sticks (pipe cleaners), bubble wrap, bean bags (check to see if the children’s groups at your church have any going spare!) and Blu Tack all make cheap fidget toys. However, do check that the person using the Blu Tack doesn’t tend to chew everything for sensory input as it may not be too good for them! Now that the craze for fidget spinners has died down, these can also be bought quite cheaply. Have some fidget toys in church and the children/youth groups too as they can help aid focus and concentration.
- Bibles: It’s no use having a Bible given to you as you walk into church if you then find it difficult to read what is written in it! I’ve already mentioned the NIrV Accessible Edition which, although only published a few years ago has already helped so many people access the Word of God. There are also other accessible Bibles including the Brick Bible, Minecraft Bible, Action Bible. Consider signing some verses in Sign Language or Makaton. Videos of signed Bible verses can be found on YouTube, but be aware that sign language, like all languages, varies from country to country so do check beforehand which sign language is being used. Prospects for People with Learning Disability (now part of Livability) have some wonderful signed verses on their YouTube channel
The best resource you can possibly have in your church are people who love others like Jesus did and treat people the way he did!
Do pray for the disabled members of your church, but don’t ever assume what they need prayer for. It may be that you have a deaf man that comes to your church every week. If he comes over for prayer don’t assume that he wants to be able to hear. He may well have come over for prayer about a job interview that’s coming up or one of many, many other things. Always ask what it is that someone needs prayer for. Also, don’t touch someone when praying for them (or at any other time!) without asking. As well as invading their personal space, they may very well be sensitive to touch or have a condition which means touch can be painful.
Most churches have got used to livestreaming their church services over the last year. It has had a huge benefit for disabled people in that those who have struggled to attend or never been able to attend church have, for this last year, been able to go to church. However, now that more and more churches are returning to the building, some are beginning to stop livestreaming the service. I know it can mean extra work for the church tech team, but I wish they would consider keeping the livestream going. By stopping it, churches will be stopping some disabled people from attending church. If your church is going to keep livestreaming the service, why not ask some of the disabled people and anyone else who may not be able to attend the church building, to take part in the service. It could be by leading the prayers, reading the Bible passage or maybe even preaching – all of which could be recorded beforehand. It can really help them to feel like they belong in the church family.
These are just a few ideas you might want to try in your church to make it more accessible. However, don’t forget to include the disabled members of your church in the conversation. Here’s to seeing more truly accessible churches in the future!
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