When I asked “Are you a barrier?” I wondered what advice I could give that would help people feel more confident about approaching and communicating with people with learning disabilities in general, as well as in church.
The body of Christ, the church is made up of many parts and all the spectrum of humanity is given access to this body by Christ himself. We only need to believe and confess He is the Son of God who died to save us from our sins. It is by grace we have been saved, so that no-one can boast. The same grace for all of us.
I was thinking about this a lot in the week. If we are to communicate with the whole of Christ’s body, the church, then how might we best do this?
I did what I always need to do…turn to the Bible for the answer. There are three ways that God communicates to all of us that we can take on board to help us communicate with people with learning disabilities, whether they are verbal or non-verbal, have some ability to understand what we say, or very little.
This is what I notice about God’s communication to us:
- He spoke. From the very beginning (“God said let there be light”), to Noah, Abraham, Moses, the Prophets, through Jesus. God used the spoken word to tell us that he was there, that we had ignored him and that he was our saviour. Even when people did not listen or understand he never gave up on his love for his people. He taught and he guided and rebuked in his great love.
- He acted. He created, he loved, he delivered, he showed compassion and mercy, he came into the world, he was kind, generous, merciful and he healed the sick and the broken hearted.
- He made promises and kept them.
All this was fulfilled in Jesus. He is the WORD that created the world, us, and gave us life in him. He is Emmanuel – God with us.
So if we follow God’s example there are some simple steps we can keep in mind to help us feel more confident in approaching people with learning disabilities as they enter our church or as we meet them in our street, supermarket, events, or anywhere else.
- Speak. Give eye-contact, smile, say hello. Do this every time you see them whether you get a response or not. Learn their name and tell them yours. Don’t waffle, allow pauses and don’t feel uncomfortable when they happen. Some people may like an invitation to sit with you. Be a good listener, people with learning disabilities communicate in lots of different ways. If they are with a carer, don’t talk to the carer as if the person with LD is not there. However possible, include them in the conversation. There is a lady at our group who doesn’t use speech but signs her own version of signs, and so we can’t always understand what she is trying to say. We tend to look to the carer for an interpretation but then repeat the words to the lady, smiling and giving her our full attention, to show her we have understood. She often smiles with delight when we do this and will repeat her signs again so we can answer her directly.
- Act. Sit next to or near them. Do this regularly. It may be a good idea to have two or three people who will do this so that if one of you is not there it does not cause distress. Indicate when it is time to stand up or sit down, offer to find the page in the book / Bible, even if they don’t read. Introduce them to a new person each week. Show them where the tea and coffee will be served. As you get to know them better, offer to meet for a coffee, or invite them for lunch. Talk to the carers as friends too. Love in word and deed and don’t give up if it doesn’t seem to be going so well for a while. They may feel very unsure of new people and it can take time for you to be trusted. Consistency can be a great help. Another lady at our group is non-verbal and autistic. She rocks and makes loud sudden noises that make others jump. After a few weeks of saying hello and smiling at her I had no response at all. I sat next to her, pointed to what she was doing and served her tea to her. Eventually, one week I got a big smile and a loud happy noise in response to my greeting and it was great!
- Jesus’ promise when he ascended to heaven was to send us a helper, the Holy Spirit. He comes to live in us when we believe and connects us with the Father and the Son. He helps us to pray, to understand and to carry out the Father’s will. Remember how we can do NOTHING in our own strength. ASK for wisdom, patience and discernment so we can communicate well with all others we meet but especially those who cannot communicate well with us. So pray for people with learning disabilities, pray for yourself so you might learn and receive from them. Don’t be afraid of failing…the real failure is to let fear win and not to try in the first place.
We are all disabled from being who we were meant to be. We are no more intelligent or able than someone with LD except in our human judgement. God’s judgement is that “ALL HAVE SINNED AND FALL SHORT OF THE GLORY OF GOD, AND ARE JUSTIFIED FREELY BY HIS GRACE THROUGH THE REDEMPTION THAT CAME BY CHRIST JESUS.” Romans 3:23-24
I haven’t got all the answers, this blog is my journey of discovery and I want to give a voice to the people I am writing about. In the seven years I have been part of this ministry I have come to love and respect the members of our group. They are truly part of God’s family and we are all disabled when we don’t include all the people God intended to be in his church.
I’m sure there are other practical ideas and thoughts about this issue – I’d love you to contribute to the ideas and debate. We can all learn together, and hopefully make a difference.