Supporting churches to include people with Autism and Learning Disabilties

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A seminar at the No Limits conference 12.11.16

In the first “Building an Accessible Church” blog we looked at the questions: What do you mean by disabilities or additional needs?  What is your theology of disability in the church?

If more disabled people are to achieve their full potential, to enter into ministry, the share their gifts with the church, if we are all to truly “mutually flourish” the church needs to change.  This will only come about when we’re able to face the issues honestly, all of us together, disabled/abled.”

Page 20 “Pilgrims in the Dark” by Katie Tupling, Dave Lucas and Bill Braviner (aka: Disability & Jesus).

In this second post we start to look at what you want to do in your church and where you might begin. So here are the next questions to ask yourself and your church.

  1. Are you willing to build a more accessible Sunday service?

A few times I’ve had the honour to be part of a gathering when people with all kinds of disabilities worshiped together. One I remember so well was the ‘No Limits’ conference in London a couple of years ago.  Being in that room, with a blind worship leader, deaf people signing, vicars who are wheelchair users leading us and a truly diverse congregation made my heart sing with joy.  I remember praising God and praying that all church services could be so diverse and inclusive.  Sometimes our Good News Group lead the service at our church.  It takes a lot of work but it something very special when adults with learning difficulties can contribute, serve, and be part of the Sunday service.  But these are isolated events and the dream of most people with disabilities is to be included.  All the time.  Every single week.

This is a challenge as it means a lot of thought, planning and change.  The way we make sure everyone can access Sunday services starts with knowing who wants to access them immediately, and then building in small changes bit by bit.  Start with asking people who are in your church family first. What about the parent who always has to take their child out of the service? Or the person who is visually impaired? Or needs to use the hearing loop – have you checked it works well for them?  Here are some simple changes that you can make to get you started: (And remember to involve the people with disabilities in making suggestions, designing and giving feedback.)

  • Make a designated quiet area for adults who need to escape the hustle and bustle of a large group of people. You can call it a quiet prayer space and if possible ask those who might need it (such as autistic adults) what it might be like.  (eg. Low lighting, box of sensory items, headphones etc.)
  • Look at your communications – service sheets, newsletters, visual displays, leaflets, signs, website, song books or words on screens etc. Ask how you can make them more accessible to those who cannot read, are dyslexic or visually impaired. Start with bigger fonts, shorter sentences, clearer space between short paragraphs to separate sections of information and pictures to illustrate the main point of the text. This is just one example of a welcome booklet.
  • The Bible – have a selection available, including the Accessible New Testament NIrV from Biblica. Show people how to access audio Bible content on their phones.  The Bible App YouBible has an audio facility and the Accessible Bible has an audio App people can buy.  You can make your own sequence of pictures to help people follow the Bible story or sermon.  We use Communicate in Print but www.freebibleimages.com are great for ready made powerpoint that are not too childish.
  • Consider a visual timetable of the service. You can print this on your service sheet or have it as a master slide on a power point or even in packages like SongPro. If you can get this to take off the symbols as each section finishes then even better.  This shows everyone what is happening and what is left. Keep it simple and if you have a regular routine then it won’t need much changing.  This is one we have at Good News Group but I’m designing one we can out onto SongPro at the moment.  You can use any symbols or pictures are long as they are clear, consistently used and understood.
Visual timetable and fruit of the Spirit picture

The Visual Timetable of our service. 

  • Organise your service differently. Can a 40 minute sermon really be the best way for your congregation to learn about God?  Use video, pictures and handouts with key points on the teaching.  Props can be helpful too, as long as there are not unexpected sensory shocks such as a sudden loud noise.  A multi-sensory approach is not childish but allows us to stay alert and pay attention because our brain is receiving more information to help it understand the verbal language it is hearing.

Remember, making your Sunday service accessible to all is a process that you will never complete.  Don’t ever think you’ll get it completely right for everyone but do it anyway. Speak to people, make what changes you can and most of all have a plan and a strategy that keeps you moving forward.

 

  1. Are you wanting to provide a ministry to a specific group and age range? Do you have people in your congregation already who you can consult / include / build something around?

There are an increasing number of churches providing specific groups for families with children with disabilities and for adults with disabilities.  There is a network of Deaf Churches across the country and Torch Trust provides groups for visually impaired and blind people.  We run our Good News Group as a separate-from-the-Sunday-services meeting.  Having a fully accessible to all Sunday service is an ideal we should not let go of.  Indeed, we’ll all be in heaven worship God together, but there are some practical considerations that make a separate meeting more accessible for many.

One reason can be the day you meet.  A midweek meeting is more accessible for our adults with learning disabilities because many of them live in supported accommodation.  There are less staff on at the weekends and their shift changes clash with a Sunday service. Parents with toddlers might find it easier to get out to church when older children are at school and a different format might suit tired parents who would rather there was no pressure to sit still and be quiet through a 40 minute sermon. (see above!)

The Additional Needs Alliance, Through the Roof’s Roofbreaker Network,  or something like what Take5andChat café’s are doing in the North East, shows us that there is help and advice from those who have already been running a group or ministry for some time.  There are many people willing to help other churches and you can learn from them what works best or what mistakes to avoid.  We have helped set up a number of similar ministries to the Good News Group over the years (and will do training in the North West) and Count Everyone In is offering support and training in the South of the country.

  • Research what others are doing and ask for advice. Ask your target group what they would like the group to be doing.
  • Get your church on board and ask the leadership to join in the praying and planning for your group. If you can link with an established organisation such as those above, then do.  Put up a display so people have time to get to know all about what you want to do.
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We put up this display for Ability Sunday 

  • Build a team to help. Ok, we know in reality that might be you and someone else, but don’t try to do something like this on your own.  If you are a small church consider joining together with other local churches and building a ministry together in your community.
  • Think about getting some awareness training, safeguarding training and find out what systems for safety you need to put in place. (Eg. Food hygiene if you’re going to serve food, DBS checks for leaders etc).  We have a team meeting every half term which is on a Good News Night but the group doesn’t happen that night.  In fact, it wouldn’t happen without that team planning and organising meeting.  We find we can discuss, arrange, have training and pray in those meetings and everyone gets a chance to speak.  Our group would not be as strong as it is without looking after the team who volunteer to run it.
  • Plan to involve your group members in the running of the group. People like to feel useful and can feel that they belong if they are part of what happens each week.  At the Good News Group our members are involved in every way we can think of and if you came to visit you would see all kinds of inclusive serving and worship together.
  • Where, when, what and how long you organise your meetings for will depend on this ground work and the availability of your volunteers. We meet every week in term time because we have volunteers with children off in the school holidays and we found that those were natural breaks.  The meetings of 6 weeks with a break, then a team meeting, work really well for us and the excitement about coming back to Good News Group after a break is really high!  Many groups like ours meet once a month.  Whatever works for you should be thought out.  My advice is to build in regular breaks for your own sake as running any kind of ministry is hard work and you need to look after yourself too.

I have a couple more questions thinking about who we might invite to our church and ministries and how we find them.  That will be the third blog in this series – hopefully next week…

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Comments on: "Building an Accessible Church 2" (2)

  1. Let me tell you about a young man who has been coming to our church since he was born with autism. In his early years he was hyperactive and withdrawn and brought all manner of bugs and insects to church as that was his thing. Now. he plays drums in our worship band by signing. He is the guy everyone wants to be friends with. He is so positive and encouraging and he has a great sense of humour. Oh, and he has a girlfriend! It’s a miracle! Everyone who knows him from his early years says this. He is one of God’s very special people and he loves to pray for people. All this because the church and his Grandmother prayed for him. He is of West Indian descent and they never stop praying. Allelulia! On point 1 – a church that is accepting, encouraging and praying can make a difference. We have many vulnerable adults in our church. We are seeing them being cared for and helped through prayer ministry and although it is often 3 steps forward and 3 steps back they know we care, support and encourage.

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    • I love to hear individual stories. The real point is a church that follows Jesus’ example and is loving and accepting will find a way to make everyone thrive like your young man here. Thank you for sharing.

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