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19 December 2014

Beyond access: enabling the Church

Beyond access: enabling the Church

Two thirds of people do not feel at ease talking to a disabled person, according to Scope's End the Awkward research. This is uncomfortable reading. Respondents agreed that disabled people face prejudice, but also admitted to deliberately avoiding disabled people. 

 But surely the situation is different in the Church? Think again. While we profess that every person is made in God's image and of equal value, people with all kinds of disabilities continue to feel excluded and even unwelcome in churches.

Alliance member Through the Roof asked disabled people about their experience of church. The feedback is mixed, but all too often, disabled people have encountered damaging attitudes, including the message that "we want God to change you" - implying that they are not acceptable as they are.The message from the disabled community to the Church is clear: go beyond ticking the box that requires a ramp and accessible toilet to actually creating a place of inclusion and participation for all.

"I wish churches knew how hard and how lonely it is to bring up a child with a disability, it's not just a "bad day", this is every day."

"Please be more accepting of people who can't sit quietly"

"If only people would stop making unhelpful comments like 'You don't look bad to me' or 'But you cope so well'."

"My disability is not the only problem in my life. When I request prayer don't assume that it's the only thing I want prayer for."

"It's no good to say 'we don't need a ramp as we have no disabled members' –as long as they have steps no wheelchair users will come!"

"The church should be an advocate for disabled people as Jesus was."

"They tend to just write me off and say God can't use me. Not true. Be a friend."

The first issues many think of when disability is mentioned are physical access, hearing loops and large-print hymn books. While vital, these facilities were not what concerned the majority of respondents. Of more concern were attitudes and a lack of real understanding of what their lives are like or what their needs are.

Others recounted insightful experiences. A woman in a wheelchair who was used to being overlooked happened to break her leg and have a plaster cast. Everything changed when people thought she is a 'normal' person who was temporarily unable to walk: people spoke to her. But once the cast was removed, she returned to where she was before, unseen and separate. A Christian speaker noted that since becoming a wheelchair user she has received far fewer invitations to speak. One man deeply involved in the life of his church hurt his back and had to use a mobility scooter. He commented that now no one was interested in his opinion.

So why the awkwardness? Roy McCloughry, national disability adviser to the Church of England, said: "One of the reasons people can be so uncomfortable around disabled people is that they realise that their lives are fragile and at any moment they could be thrust into a world that they are not prepared for. People are too busy to invest in deep relationships."

Annie Rey, a mother of a boy with Down's syndrome, wishes the Church would give her a break: "At any service, a little empathy goes a long way. Forget 'Christ is risen!', we were welcomed with the far more important: 'Will he behave?' Er, pass the crystal ball please!"

disability groupIn well-intentioned attempts to look after people there is a danger that only doing things for people can feel patronising or unhelpful. Mat Ray, church engagement manager at Livability, said: “Churches are not great at saying, ‘it’s your turn to make tea!’. You know you are truly part of a family when you stop sitting there as a guest but get stuck in with the washing-up.” 

Sheila Armstrong from Market Harborough said: “People find it difficult to take you seriously if your disability is visible. I’m blind and have a dog, so it is obvious. Just because I can’t make eye contact to start the conversation doesn’t mean I don’t want to talk. You only get to know people when you do things with them, not to them.” 

Interestingly, the other side of the coin to being pitied is also problematic. “We are not angels to be looked up to in admiration either, that’s just another way to feel different,” she added. 

Andrew Bartley has muscular dystrophy and has a generally positive experience of church: “People don’t make an issue of it. It is accepted as much as it is ignored. I was a house group leader and found my disability, instead of a hindrance, to be a gateway to help others be themselves. I’m a living testimony. Muscular dystrophy has defined my life in many ways and shaped my thinking, but it is not my identity.” 

The Church should be the place where the most marginalised or vulnerable groups in society are welcomed. Some churches have successfully ensured that disabled people are an integral part of the community, even in the presence of practical difficulties. But by contrast, others have all the physical access requirements in place, yet leave disabled people feeling belittled or overlooked.

"There's still more practical access work to be done, of course -braille, large-print, ramps, loops and visuals," says Gordon Temple, executive director of Torch Trust. "But the deeper issue is creating a place where disabled people truly belong, where we discover our true identity and find wholeness."

There is a concern that some attitudes may in fact be regressing, as Haydon Spenceley, who has cerebral palsy, noted: "As a Church of England minister and wheelchair user, I fear that the belief that impairment equals weakness is creeping back into society. Social disablement - constructing things in a way that others are excluded and unable to take part - should have no place in our lives or churches. Churches with disabled people in them are stronger, not weaker, and more reflective of the body of Christ."

Some key ways to ensure disabled people feel valued is to give time,develop real friendships, include invitations to social events, provide opportunities to serve, listen and consider modifying things like schedules, or indeed expectations, to allow disabled people to be involved.

Sarah, from Lincoln, benefits from a Prospects group as they allow for her needs: "I don't mind people knowing that I struggled with church because of my learning disability. I just couldn't understand what people were talking about in church."

Roy McCloughry maintains that friendships and groups like this are vital: "If you change your values, slow down and really get to know people that are different from you, you would find that life is richer than you ever thought it could be."

Other answers in the survey show that many would like the chance to do a Bible reading, man the sound desk, lead a house group, work with children or take part in the flower rota, but no one thinks to offer them the opportunity. Some are called to, and more than capable of fulfilling a prayer ministry, a pastoral or leadership role.

John Bradley, a retired Methodist minister and wheelchair user with multiple sclerosis, was disappointed that "in modern buildings, the worship area for the congregation is accessible but the platform is not. This implies an expectation that disabled people will not lead."

"My disability is far from the most important thing about me, but I'm ready to speak about how I make sense of it in my own life and faith. I hope I give a visible example that being disabled isn't the end of being involved in leadership," added John.

Haydon Spenceley ends with a challenge: “We have a mission opportunity and it’s imperative not just to anticipate that people with diverse abilities and impairments will come to church, but to throw open our doors and allow people to find a home with us.”

Disability remains a vastly under-represented topic and this article only touches the surface of a small number of issues. It should be noted that many disabilities are unseen, including mental illness, chronic pain or fatigue. Articles in previous editions of idea have looked at the Church and mental health and Church and the d/Deaf.


- Churches for All - Christian disability charities have come together under the banner of Churches for All to encourage churches to become enabling churchesforall.org.uk

- Talks/scripts from Enabling Church conference available online

- Sign the Churches Inc pledge to make your church disabled friendly

- Become a 'Roofbreaker' with Through the Roof to champion the needs of disabled people in your church

- Have a church consultation and get resources from Livability who work with churches

- Find out more about Prospects groups

 - Worship for All system by the Torch Trust can help turn those screen words into large print or braille

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