Supporting churches to include people with Autism and Learning Disabilties

This post comes after I have done two training sessions at churches in Liverpool and Manchester.  What I have been inspired by is the heart of the church leaders and others to start a new season of accessibility and inclusion at their churches.

We all know that oak trees grow from tiny acorns and that Jesus said if we had faith as small as a mustard seed then anything is possible.

Matthew 17:20-21  (NIRV)

 He replied, “Because your faith is much too small. What I’m about to tell you is true. If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, it is enough. You can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there.’ And it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.”

In Liverpool, I spoke about autism along with Cristina who is, by her own definition, ‘An Aspie Christian’.  It was organised by Liverpool Deaf church and we had two BSL interpreters signing our talks and allowing us to communicate with the deaf members of the audience.  We made a point of recognising that there were deaf autistic people and that communication with them needed to take both differences into account.  I learned from the deaf people who attended, some of the differences in deaf communication that I hadn’t know, such as interrupting isn’t really a ‘thing’ for them as the way they communicate in sign language is more fluid than waiting for your turn to say something.  As always, the sensory needs of autistic people were of great interest to the audience and they responded really positively with ideas about what support they could give in their churches.

In Manchester, I spoke about the ‘hidden disabilities’ including dyslexia, ADHD, autism, and how we may have a high number of adults with different disabilities that we know nothing about.  The implications for our preaching and teaching is huge.  What if 50% or more of our congregations can’t understand our Bible teaching fully?  (There are no statistics for the people who actually understand a regular sermon because much is ‘hidden’ and people don’t want to admit they didn’t ‘get it’. – So I made an educated guess to make a point).  We are disabling people if we make sweeping assumptions about the ability to understand and things like literal understanding of spiritual words and concepts (set my heart on fire). There is the need for concrete examples that people can relate to alongside acknowledging the awe, wonder and mystery of our God.  We looked at autism in particular, and what autistic people might need from the church to help them be included and discipled.  We looked at the enormous amount of gifting in people with hidden disabilities that we may need to think of different ways to grow and develop.

What was wonderful in both these settings was seeing church leaders and members wanting to do something positive to make their church more accessible.  Some were just starting out, right at the beginning of looking at what they do and thinking about what was helpful and what wasn’t.  Another church had done a lot of work on becoming dementia friendly and could see how some of those approaches (such as using visuals and having a quiet space) could be developed further to support some autistic people.  One church had started to put symbols on their service sheet as a visual clue to what that part of the service was about.

These may seem tiny but they are significant steps.  We all have to start somewhere and often it is small things like making a quiet/sensory area available, changing the language in sermons to make it more understandable to more people, using a visual schedule to show what will happen in the service and having ways to help people who can’t sit still or who find coffee time terrible because of the noise and demand of socialising.

The best thing is to do an audit of what you do, involving any autistic or other disabled people in your congregation, asking them.  If you are not sure who you have, then speak to an autistic person you might know and ask them to do an audit with you.  An autistic perspective can be such a valuable thing, as long as you remember that each person is different and so other changes may need to be made for others.  Then you can develop a plan – with goals and regular updates about how things are going.

I have written about writing a more accessible sermon here.  Changing our teaching style may be more challenging than you think but more rewarding than you can imagine. Looking at words and explaining things clearly can help all our congregations.  Explaining the Bible, spiritual terms and language in ways that almost all the congregation can grasp means that more will go away from a Sunday service equipped to live the Christian life each day.  Using visuals or drama can help people see what it means and what the concept might look like in real life examples.  It is the simple things in the Bible that we need most to live out in our lives when we are not at church.

My starting point is this question…If a group of adults with learning disabilities arrived at your church in a minibus one Sunday to join your service – would you be ready or could you adapt what you were going to do so that they felt welcome, included and understood something about Jesus’s love and desire for them to be part of his kingdom?

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Keswick 2017

I have been to help with the Keswick Convention Prospects team twice now and although I love it so much the thing that stands out to me is the Wednesday evening in the big tent when the Prospects group go on the main stage to share what they have been doing and sing a song with everyone.  This is well received but feels like a missed opportunity.   The measure for me is this, that when all the group sit down after being on mainstage, the meeting carries on as usual.  The songs contain complex words (and one year we did really have the ‘ineffably sublime’ song…what on earth does ‘ineffably’ mean?)  and the talk is long, full of complex language and concepts and mostly inaccessible to the Prospects group.

A missed opportunity or a token gesture?  I would rather see real inclusion.

Hebrews 11:1 (NIRV)

Faith That Produces Action

Faith is being sure of what we hope for. It is being sure of what we do not see. 

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Comments on: "Building an accessible church 4 – Starting with some training." (1)

  1. ‘Through the Roof’ offer a self-assessment questionnaire that churches can use to do an audit. It’s called ‘Removing Barriers’ and you can buy it for £3 from Through the Roof. https://www.throughtheroof.org/shop/removing-barriers

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