“In contrast to other disabilities such as blindness or paralysis, learning disabilities can be invisible. For this and other reasons, people with learning disabilities are often misunderstood, frequently marginalised in society and all too often left out of church.
Generally speaking they carry a lifelong disorder that affects the ability to either interpret what they see and hear, or to link information from different parts of the brain. This can show up in many ways – for example, in an inability to understand or use spoken and written language.
However, such limitations do not stop God working. A learning disabled adult may be able to serve the church in a number of different ways – just like any other member of the church. Many church leaders have found that making special provision for people with learning disabilities has had a very positive impact on the whole church, making it a better place for everybody. (acknowlegement – www.prospects.org.uk)
My last blog post was about not being able to read and how that can be a barrier to church.
This next post is about not being able to talk. There are many differences in people with learning disabilities so forgive me for being a little general here, but a number of our congregation don’t communicate with words very well. They may be able to say one or two words, it may take them a long time to speak. They may make sounds that mean something to those who can interpret. They may use some signs to communicate.
In regular church this doesn’t mean they cannot access the service, and those who do come along can still join in songs and other things.
However, other things like saying prayers, saying the creed, responding to questions, asking questions and talk and chat after the service become a barrier. These things rely on being able to talk. It is through talk we get to know people and build friendships. It is one of the ways we express our faith and tell others about Jesus.
The challenges for churches to include non-verbal people with learning disabilities in their family are not as great as you might think. Firstly we need understanding about different ways people communicate, have the patience and time to listen to what is being communicated and have some people in the church who may befriend, interpret and enable the person to communicate with others.
In regular services, there are a few ideas that can be adopted to enable people with learning disabilities engage and learn (wait for it…this will be another post…)
We should be looking for ways all people can serve in the church. There are plenty of things to do without talking but which also mean working alongside others. We encourage our members to serve our meal, greet people at the door, join in the activities, pray for their friends and carers.
By having a special meeting for people with learning disabilities (we encourage them to join regular church as well), there is a time that we can enable everyone to respond and make themselves heard. I have been spending some time over the past few months observing, communicating and listening to our members to see how those who do not talk can and do contribute and have their say.
One of the ways we have found bringing us some success is by using a symbol package called “Communicate in Print”. We print off a sheet of symbols related to our teaching and our non-verbal members can use them to answer questions or respond to the teaching. It enables them to tell us what they have learned and to give their own opinion.
Another way is by using Makaton (there is Signalong too but as our members are adults they learned Makaton at school). We have had training and have learned lots of Christian signs that enable us to pray, sing and communicate together.
There are other barriers and other ways of over coming them…I will write more in the next few weeks.