Supporting churches to include people with Autism and Learning Disabilties

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Why we need an accessible Bible

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“I thank my God always on your behalf, for the grace of God which is given you by Jesus Christ; That in everything ye are enriched by him, in all utterance, and in all knowledge; Even as the testimony of Christ was confirmed in you:  So that ye come behind in no gift; waiting for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ:  Who shall also confirm you unto the end, that ye may be blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

1 Corinthians 1:4-8  (KJV)

This is just one sentence in the King James Version of the Bible.  It’s old language and complex elements means it can be very difficult to read, never mind understand and interpret.   There are other versions but some of the difficulties are the same with these too.  There are many people who find the Bible difficult to read.  It could be because:

  • They find the print too small
  • The words are too complex
  • The words are too close together
  • The sentences are too long
  • They don’t know the meaning of unfamiliar words
  • The language is unfamiliar and old
  • It is hard to find the chapter and verse as the numbers are spread out and so small
  • They are slow at reading
  • They frequently lose the point where they have read to

People with poor literacy are found in all kinds of places.  Prisoners are one of the largest illiterate groups in the country.  Around 17% of young people leave school without functional literacy.  People have sight problems or cognitive difficulties which makes long pieces of text hard to follow.   People with learning difficulties can come in all guises and we can easily assume the people in our congregations can read the Bible, when in reality, they just can’t.  We often assume people are ignoring the Bible, but maybe they just are hiding the fact that they find it very difficult to read.  There are people with dyslexia and other hidden disabilities that might not like to tell people that they have these difficulties.

I’ve supported adults with learning disabilities for many years in a church group.  We have some readers who find the Bible texts that we normally have so difficult to access.  We ended up buying children’s Bibles for them, which felt both patronising and unsuitable.  Children’s Bible’s tell simplified versions of the Bible stories.  We wanted the full Bible so we can study it together.

We have been using the NIrV Accessible version of Matthew’s gospel since January and our group have been so excited to read the Bible for themselves.  The text size, simple but accurate text, shorter sentences, wider spacing, gaps between paragraphs and easier numbering of verses has been so helpful.  The illustrations explain the passage and are not childish.  And we have been able to support non-readers by providing visual pictures that follow this text.  Seeing all our group read the Bible together has been amazing.

There were still some needs not being met.  Those who can’t read needed an audio version and we were all desperate to have the whole Bible so we could extend our Bible exploration.

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Buy at:   https://www.biblicaeurope.com/bible-shop/product/234/nirv-accessible-edition-new-testament

So we are so happy that Biblica have now published both the whole New Testament in print version and in audio.  We have put in our initial order and will be looking to buy everyone who can read their own copy, have copies available for Sunday services and make sure that those who cannot read have access to an audio version.

Thank you Biblica.  I can see so many places this Bible can be used.  I’m particularly excited about the project to get them into prisons.  Please do support this, and consider buying one for someone you know, your church or your local prison.

We look forward to the Old Testament too.

The Gospel for All – Inclusive Easter.

 

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This was the cross we used for our drama

Our church isn’t perfect.  All churches are places for sinners – remember Jesus said as the sick need a doctor, so sinners need a saviour.  No matter who you are – you need Jesus.  What a great leveller that is!  But we are working on including people with disabilities in our church family and giving them opportunities to serve and offer their gifts.  This Easter, our Good News Group were asked to lead the Easter Service when all our congregation come together to celebrate Jesus rising from the dead.  So with a good few of our group able to make it on that day,  we planned our service.

Paul and I led the service. He was so excited…as he said “me and you like to boss people about so we are ideal for this job!”   He was also really excited that a recent operation had restored his sight to a degree that he could see where people where and what colour they were wearing.  His joy and excitement lifted our hearts as we encouraged everyone to praise God for Easter day.  We began by reminding our church that for the GNG what we were doing that day was normal.  We have a service every week where everyone is given the opportunity to serve and lead something.  So to read the Bible, lead prayers, run the sound desk or computer, welcome people into church and talk to the congregation is what we do.  That was to help people not see our joining in as a novelty, but something completely usual.

It was a wonderful service because the focus wasn’t on us or people with learning disabilities or on the Vicar or the musicians.  The focus was on Jesus.  Being able to share our Makaton signed songs and have all the church signing them and the Lord’s prayer and grace was a highlight for me.  Lorraine, our BSL signer, signed the whole service and we had a visual schedule of the service.  We chose the aspects of support that our group need and built these into the service.  And guess what…lots of people said it was good to know what was happening and follow the service with the symbols.

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Our service sheets 

I don’t think there is any such thing as a perfect service but we have a perfect Saviour.  if people went away with awe at the fact that Jesus died and was raised to life so our sins could be forgiven, then we have been good servants of the Lord.  We had a great talk from Revelation 1 looking at Jesus’s return.  We look forward to that!

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Leading the church in Makaton signing a song

I was asked why we didn’t do the service every week – and on our Wednesday meetings we do.  Sundays are not suitable for many of the Good News Group as weekends are when there aren’t as many staff to bring them, it is too early to get up and ready or they visit their families.  Our midweek service is open to all (and we do get plenty of visitors which we love) and being in the evening is more accessible to many people.  Occasions like Easter Sunday (we are a church where there are 5 congregations) are a wonderful way to come together and celebrate the diversity of the Body of Christ and meet the rest of the church family.  I thank God for the church we are in and how it works hard to learn how to include people with learning disabilities.

We’re a work in progress.  Maybe you are too….

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Mary and Simone remembering the first Easter. 

The “I can – We can” approach to inclusion in Church

“Living then, as every one of you does, in pure grace, it’s important that you not misinterpret yourselves as people who are bringing this goodness to God. No, God brings it all to you. The only accurate way to understand ourselves is by what God is and by what he does for us, not by what we are and what we do for him.

4-6 In this way we are like the various parts of a human body. Each part gets its meaning from the body as a whole, not the other way around. The body we’re talking about is Christ’s body of chosen people. Each of us finds our meaning and function as a part of his body. But as a chopped-off finger or cut-off toe we wouldn’t amount to much, would we? So since we find ourselves fashioned into all these excellently formed and marvelously functioning parts in Christ’s body, let’s just go ahead and be what we were made to be, without enviously or pridefully comparing ourselves with each other, or trying to be something we aren’t.”              1 Corinthians 12: 3-6  The Message

The thing about labels of disability or additional needs is that they are based on a deficit model.  The diagnostic criteria for Autism or ADHD, for example, is a list of things the person isn’t able to do.  We say that people who are deaf are ‘hearing impaired’ and a person who is blind is defined by the fact they cannot see.   There are so many ‘disorders’ these days that the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual that professionals use to identify these disorders is currently on version 5 and 947 pages thick, compared to version 1 which was only 132 pages long.

When we seek to be an inclusive church we are doing everyone a disservice if we approach people’s differences as deficits.  The Bible tells us we are one body of different parts and that each part is a valuable and necessary part without which the rest of the body cannot function.  I think we could get better at understanding this.  I think we could  develop a less hierarchical model in churches.  Yes, we need leaders (shepherds of Jesus’s flock) but we tend to put them on pedestals and think that they can do everything and should be perfect.  It’s little wonder that so many ministers and leaders fall from that pedestal.  We ought never have put them there in the first place.

When people with learning disabilities or who are autistic, or blind or deaf come are part of our church it is very easy to start with what they cannot do.  They can’t read the notices,  they can’t hear the sermon, they can’t stay for tea after the service, they can’t keep quiet in the service…etc…etc…

But what if we had a different place to start?  What if we started with what they CAN do?

I CAN

I recently met with a church worker, a mum and her son who has Down’s Syndrome.  He was just four years old and they came to my house to chat through some ideas about helping the little boy settle into Sunday School when he moved from the creche into the class.   One thing we started with was what could he do and what did he like.  I found out he could sign some words and he liked singing and sensory toys.  His mum told me this, but he could tell me too, not verbally but by me getting on the floor with him and imitating what he was doing.  I sang a song and signed it, and he joined in…and then asked for it again (and again…)  When we allow the child with additional needs to tell us what they CAN do we have something to start us off.

An adult with learning difficulties wants to come to our Sunday service.  I will start with the same approach.  What CAN he do?  In our Good News Group, we get to know our members by finding out what their interests and abilities are.  We start with “I CAN”.

Starting with “I CAN” means that you listen and don’t assume.  It means you adjust the way you do things to make it engaging, meaningful and inclusive based on what that person CAN do.  We are still learning.  Each time a new person comes we start again.  And the thing is,  when we read 1 Corinthians 12,  the bit that says we all have gifts…then we can find out what those gifts are.  We want to teach ourselves and the world that people with differences are not to be pitied or patronised or excluded. The body of Christ is something so diverse and inclusive everyone should want and can be an equally valued part of it….now let’s help the church catch up with that!

WE CAN

The other aspect of this is how we function as a community.  And to do that we can develop the attitude and practice of being a community.  In this highly individualised society we value independence….not interdependence.  A body is by it’s nature a whole entity.  The Bible warns us of thinking that one part is more important than another.  God turns this world’s values upside down.  In order to be his people we need to ask what “WE CAN” do together.  So when that little boy I mentioned earlier starts his Sunday School class, the church is asking what “we can’ do together to make him included and valued.  We talked a lot about how making all children work together, for example, all learning signing together, will help all of them understand the inclusivity of God’s Kingdom.   When the man with learning difficulties comes to our church service we will ask what “we can” do to adapt our service so that he can feel part of us, included and valued.  We should be doing this for everyone, and all together.   That’s God’s community.

WE CAN also give space for everyone to tell their stories.  We can learn so much from listening to how God is working in each of our lives.  Listening takes away the need to assume things (which can often be wrong) and can help us see that everyone has faith and gifts to offer our community.

We know we’re going to make mistakes and we know we are often falling into judgemental attitudes, moaning, complaining and assuming things about people that just aren’t true.  We get angry and uppity about unimportant things and let the important things pass us by because we prefer not to speak up…..Well,  that’s my confession, anyway!

So as a faith community, believers and followers of Jesus, WE CAN focus on what it is that joins us together.  Jesus died, was raised to life and sent the Holy Spirit to be with us so that we could be more like Jesus.  It’s the Resurrection that unites us.  It’s the gift of faith by GRACE that levels us.   WE CAN because Jesus has promised to give us all we need.  He forgives us so WE CAN forgive each other.

It is humbling and exciting to be in a church that isn’t perfect.  And yet, on Easter Sunday, our Good News Group will be leading the Easter Day service.  We will be working as a team, sharing our gifts with our congregation and visitors…because what we share more than anything else is our love of Jesus and our faith in his Resurrection from the dead.

We are saved by grace –

together…

AMEN and Hallelujah!!!

‘Weak Made Strong’

I am so pleased to keep reblogging Mark’s blogs. His thoughts and work are so similar to all that includedbygrace is about. Here’s his latest post and it makes my heart sing!

The Additional Needs Blogfather

Have you ever built a great big tower out of Jenga blocks?  Seen how high you can build it until it falls over?  Great fun isn’t it!  Around this time last year, I was helping out at Spring Harvest, the Christian festival that runs every Easter.  My role was to support guests with additional needs and disabilities across the whole site and across all ages from the crèche to the senior adults.  It was while I was ‘doing my rounds’ that I first saw Jack* building his tower out of Jenga blocks (other wooden stacking blocks are available!)  He would get to maybe six or seven blocks high and then they would all fall down.

Jack was about eight years old then, and I learned that he has Autism which in his case means that he struggles to communicate verbally, prefers not to be in a large noisy group…

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‘Let ALL The Little Children Come To Me…’

This doesn’t need to happen. Some thought and planning can avoid it.

The Additional Needs Blogfather

I received a message last Sunday that made my blood boil… Those of you that know me will appreciate that this doesn’t happen very often; I’m rather determined at times but rarely lose my temper. The message I received made me furious, absolutely mad as could be… Livid… I still am, and here’s why…

Some 2,000 years ago, Jesus is recorded as having said “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” (Matthew 19:14)  Now, whether you are a Christian or not, this speaks to me of acceptance, of inclusion, of belonging…

Jesus didn’t say “Let the little children come to me… except that one who can sometimes find things harder to follow and so needs extra support, can often struggle with lots of people and noise so needs help to cope, and can occasionally…

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Out of sight, out of mind?

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Isaiah 58:6  (NIV)

“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?”

 

In 2006 I started teaching my first class in a school for children with severe autism and learning difficulties.  A class of six teenage boys, with six teaching assistants, one for each.  One boy, let’s call him Gordon, often needed two TAs with him.  He would hit his own forehead with both fists unless the TAs sat hold his arms gently giving him reassurance that they were there.  At first, most days he would have what is called a ‘meltdown’ where he would become very distressed, arch his back, hit himself and be in danger of getting hurt by the furniture that he would fall against.  As a team we were well trained in safe holding techniques and were given extra support and training to keep him safe, reassure him and help him recover.  Neither the headteacher or us as a staff were happy that we had to do this but our prime concern was the safety of Gordon.  It was really horrible to see him become so distressed and not be able to tell us why.

Around then we had training about sensory integration therapy and the school employed a sensory therapist to assess the sensory needs of all the children in the school.  Understanding the sensory needs of children with autism was only just coming into our education system at that time.  As we put the therapy in place and I as teacher began to bring sensory work into all my lessons, we soon noticed that Gordon was calmer, more engaged with the lessons and his sense of humour began to emerge.  We also worked on understanding his communication and realised that he could take up to 5 minutes to process a visual piece of information, and if we left a symbol with him he would look at it intently until he’d processed it.  Then instead of needed adults to escort him everywhere, he would get up and take himself to the playground or wherever we were going.  By the end of that school year, Gordon was sitting at the group table, engaged in lessons, following the routines and loved our trips out in the minibus.  The meltdowns had decreased to almost nothing and he made us laugh with his humour and cheekiness when he did things and watched us to see if we would laugh.

But Gordon left the school the year after.  He was sent to a medical assessment facility for people with autism at the other side of the country.  I never saw him again.  He’ll be a man now.   I still pray for him because I could never forget him and was worried that other people wouldn’t take the time and effort to get to know him like we did.  I wanted to let them know what sensory activities he loved and what helped him stay calm.  I wanted to tell them how to give him processing time and that he would seek to make them laugh.  Gordon and the rest of those boys taught me so much about autism.  They taught me to get to know the person, to take the time to watch and listen to how a person communicates and to allow time for someone to process my communication to them.

I was thinking about Gordon when I watched the Channel 4 Dispatches programme “Under Lock and Key”  this week about a large secure hospital for people (often children with autism and complex needs.  It was classed as mental health issues but it seemed clear to me that their mental health issues were caused by not receiving the right therapy and support.  Families who were desperate to get help for their children were brushed off, patronised, seemingly blamed.  The children were isolated, locked up in ‘cells’, forced to have strong medications, physically abused with ‘handling’ techniques that are some of the most dangerous – and there were deaths. I wept through that programme…and prayed that Gordon never got taken to such a place.

It’s Lent and a group of us have challenged ourselves to read Isaiah 58 for the whole month of March.  It’s not hard to see how these verses relate to what I am saying about Gordon and the other young people in these hospitals.   There are a lot of children, young people and adults who are non-verbal and severely disabled by their autism – or to be more precise, severely disabled and frightened and anxious because they are not receiving the understanding, care and therapy that would give them a better quality of life and the ability to function in a safe and enriching environment.  There are these big ‘mental hospitals’ around the country, (some of them are expanding…urrrggh) and parents often have to travel miles and miles to even visit their child.

There was a move away from ‘shutting away’ people in large mental health institutions in the 1960s and 1970s which culminated in the Mental Health Act of 1983 to move people out of these institutions and into the community – 34 years later, why do we still have these places?

As Christians, Isaiah 58 is a wake up call to us now as much as it was to the Israelites all those years ago.  I am challenged to learn more about what facilities are in my area and to think about how we can reach out to those people with learning disabilities who do live in the community or with their families who either cannot access church or don’t think they would be welcome.  Every person with autism or learning disabilities has a right to have religious beliefs and practices.  Here is a useful document to read about that.   I know there are some chaplains that do visit the big hospitals.  But there is also the issue of how much they and us as Christians understand about autism or learning disabilities.  As I’ve said before in this post “Don’t infantalise adults with LD” some training and learning for all of us would really help.  But, like with Gordon, listening learning and respecting that person for who they are will make a huge difference.  We can share our faith once we loose those chains of injustice (speak out against these hospitals, campaign for better community care, come alongside parents and people with autism/ LD as they battle against PIP assessments by people who know nothing about their condition, speak up for inclusion in our church and seek to learn what we can to help).  In fact, isn’t that what sharing our faith should be…according to Isaiah 58…

 

 

‘2017: A Faith Odyssey’

This is great news from Mark Arnold at Urban Saints. A commitment to inclusion.

The Additional Needs Blogfather

In 1968 ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’, possibly the most iconic sci-fi movie of all-time, hit the cinema.  16 years later the sequel, ‘2010: The Year We Make Contact’ arrived.  Both are firm favourites of mine, but a clip from ‘2010’ has been going around in my head this week, a week that has been hugely significant for me and I hope will be significant for additional needs and disability ministry to children and young people… It’s a clip that fits well with what’s been going on with me…

In the clip, Dave Bowman (a character from the original film) appears to Astronaut Dr. Heywood Floyd and reveals to him some amazing news…

Dave Bowman: You see, something’s going to happen…
Heywood Floyd: What? What’s going to happen?
Dave Bowman: Something wonderful.
Heywood Floyd: What?
Dave Bowman: I understand how you feel…

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