Supporting churches to include people with Autism and Learning Disabilties

This blog which is part of my series,  but a bit different.  I have been prompted to write about the wider church picture, addressing some issues that are going on in the world concerning the church right now.  Knowing that what we are doing is part of revival, can spur us on to get on with this ministry with and to disabled people.

A Story About People Invited to a Dinner

Jesus used some more stories to teach the people. He said,  “God’s kingdom is like a king who prepared a wedding feast for his son.  He invited some people to the feast. When it was ready, the king sent his servants to tell the people to come. But they refused to come to the king’s feast.

“Then the king sent some more servants. He said to them, ‘I have already invited the people. So tell them that my feast is ready. I have killed my best bulls and calves to be eaten. Everything is ready. Come to the wedding feast.’

 “But when the servants told the people to come, they refused to listen. They all went to do other things. One went to work in his field, and another went to his business. Some of the other people grabbed the servants, beat them, and killed them.  The king was very angry. He sent his army to kill those who murdered his servants. And the army burned their city.

“After that the king said to his servants, ‘The wedding feast is ready. I invited those people, but they were not good enough to come to my feast. So go to the street corners and invite everyone you see. Tell them to come to my feast.’  So the servants went into the streets. They gathered all the people they could find, good and bad alike, and brought them to where the wedding feast was ready. And the place was filled with guests.      Matthew 22: 1-10 Easy-to-Read Version (ERV)

 

great banquet

Painting graphic courtesy of Hyatt Moore.   https://www.smore.com/

There is change afoot in the church, especially the large established churches. For centuries, they have been run by men.  Many of them power hungry and dominating. There have been some amazing, humble and revolutionary faithful men throughout the history of the church.  Men who brought the word of God, men who brought revival.  I grew up going to a Methodist Church and was in awe of the Wesley brothers.  People talk about Luther and Calvin and lots of others.  Great.  Fab.  But where are the women in church history?    (My hero is Lydia.  She was the first to believe and be baptised by Paul as he visited Europe (God led Paul to a group of women – Acts 16) and started the first European church.)

The other thing you might have noticed about today’s church are the scandals.  In America, Australia, Rome and the UK, priests and Bishops have been accused and found guilty of child sexual abuse.  Others have been found guilty of covering it up. Even Prince Charles claimed he was ‘deceived’ to believe and defend the innocence of a leading Bishop, later found guilty.  Women haven’t come out of this unscarred either.  The nuns of long ago who took babies off young unmarried girls, sold the children and kept the women as virtual slaves in workhouses, just for their sins. The years we have shut disabled people away in institutions have been supported and sanctioned by the church – even in being silent about it for so long.

The powerful in the church are being held to account. The world reacts with horror and indignation and hates and blames the church.  The world mocks the church and it’s ‘standards’, telling it is irrelevant and a danger to even those in its care. They have used the Bible to subjugate, to oppress and abuse others for their own ends. Why would anyone want to join the church?

But at the same time there is a revolution happening…

Those who have for centuries have been excluded from the church are banging on its doors.  The disabled, the women, the poor, the mentally ill, the LGBTQ people in our society are asking to be included.

The reason – Jesus.  They know Jesus is Good News.  They know he is a saviour and bring forgiveness and hope in this dark world.  They have faith in Jesus, not the church.  They want the church to change to include them. 

And they are finding their voice.  Those who hold on to power in the church will resist.  The powerful have nothing to hope in except their power.  But look, God is revealing the truth behind the mask.  These scandals are showing us the real state of the church.  And just like in the parable of the great banquet – it’s those on the outside that are going to fill our churches.  We need to be full of faith filled messy people.  We need to welcome with rejoicing all those with messy lives who don’t look ‘respectable’ who challenge the status quo and our idea of who belongs on the church.  A time of great repentance is needed.  A revival is coming in a way those in power had never expected.

I am frustrated with the things happening and being reported about the church. It’s slowness to wake up and open its doors, primarily to disabled people as that’s the area I know best, but to all others too. I can see God working to clean up the church and my hope is to be part of that revival. A church that lives the banquet parable is a messy church.  It is a massive challenge to live Jesus’s radical open armed message of grace FOR ALL.  But the church belongs to Jesus.  No matter what we read in the press – He is working in the church to open the doors and fill up his house!

My hubby and I are spending some time visiting other churches. We want to feel refreshed by different preaching and teaching, as well as see what goes on in our area. We are visiting different denominations and congregations.  I am going with a view to observe and listen to the messages about disability and inclusion. I’m going to observe the demographic of the congregations and how people relate to us as strangers. I’m going to look at the place of women in the church.   Already I’ve visited churches where it doesn’t even occur to them, and women are partnering with men as vicars, leaders and preachers and not just children’s or disability workers.  We all want a church that lives the banquet.  We all want to be in church with many people of all ethnicities, disabilities, sexualities, family types and mental health.  We want to worship together, discover each other’s gifts and open the Bible together.  Jesus knows everything and he loves us.  That’s should be the standard we all live by.

So let’s pray for revival.  Let’s pray for repentance and change, for those in power to let go and let Jesus’s love, (his radical, messy, perfect love,) bring those left outside, in to the church.  I’m excited because church like that is going to be exciting and relevant to our broken world. 

 

NB. “The church” refers to the big established church institutions such as the CofE and Catholic church structures of power and priesthood. Other denominations have these power structures too.

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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…

each one different

Church – a unique assortment of people, like these buttons!

I’ve had a break from blogging but not from work and ministry.  I have been exploring some new ideas and in the end, became a bit overwhelmed by the amount of work that this was generating.  I learn by trying things out, by researching and making plans.  Sometimes these don’t go as I expected and I learn about my own limitations and that I’ve probably gone down the wrong road. I see this as part of my spiritual growth.  I have always believed that as Christians we grow more through the storms than we do when everything is going smoothly.  I can now realise that I have been doing some growing.  I’m sure there is a lot more to learn!

During this past year God has, of course, been so faithful and allowed me to see him at work.  I’ve had a number of opportunities to talk to individuals and churches who are exploring how they might make their church more accessible or wanting to start up an additional needs ministry from scratch.  I’ve learned so much from them by watching the journey they are travelling.

It has led me to put together a few questions that people might ask themselves as they begin to build a more accessible church.

  1. What do you mean by disabilities or additional needs?  What is your theology of disability in the church?

Ok. Now those are two questions and they are the big ones.  It is worth spending time doing some research and having some discussion about this right at the beginning.  There are at least two main models of disability, (and I am explaining these very simply) the medical model which looks at disability as something wrong with the person and often our view that a person needs ‘fixing’ comes from this.  If we believe that disabled people need praying for healing and that their disability is a result of sin or a mistake in evolution (I’ve heard all those things) then we might need to look more carefully at the social model of disability.  The social model looks at how society is organised and that failure to adapt and make provision for different needs is what causes disability.  That is, people are disabled because society is disabling them. Where we stand as Christians on these, matters.  They will inform how we approach making our churches accessible and how we see gifts, service and discipleship for everyone. It is important to talk to disabled Christians and listen to their views.  Disability can come from illness, impairment, genetic causes or accidents.  We might consider carefully the language we use and invite disabled people to guide that conversation.  Generally, look for positive words and descriptions.  We need to validate and honour people in our congregations, whoever they are.

An example is using person first language.  It can seem honourable to say a person is a person first, then they have a certain condition. For example, a person who is deaf, or a person who uses a wheelchair.  We must also be aware that some people do prefer not to describe themselves in this way.  For example, autistic people often prefer using the term ‘autistic’ rather than ‘person with autism’.  Don’t feel bogged down with worry about the language.  Have the conversation, talk to people with disabilities and read up on the matter.  Be aware that language changes over time.  Only 30 years ago it was acceptable to call people with learning disabilities ‘educationally subnormal’.  Be humble and open to learn.  You will.

I am not a trained theologian, but as I search the Bible I see quite clearly how Jesus made God’s kingdom accessible.  He welcomed what society saw as broken people, he sought out those on the edge of society, those excluded.  He told them that disability wasn’t the result of sin, but so that God’s glory could be seen.  King David welcomed Mephibosheth, son of Jonathan, to the king’s table.  It is worth spending time looking at Scripture and asking the Lord to lead you through to a theology that matches his love.  My favourite passage is in 1 Corinthians 12. (This from the Easy Read Version).

One Body but Many Parts

12 There is one body, but it has many parts. But all its many parts make up one body. It is the same with Christ. 13 We were all baptized by one Holy Spirit. And so we are formed into one body. It didn’t matter whether we were Jews or Gentiles, slaves or free people. We were all given the same Spirit to drink. 14 So the body is not made up of just one part. It has many parts.

14 And a person’s body has more than one part. It has many parts. 15 The foot might say, “I am not a hand, so I don’t belong to the body.” But saying this would not stop the foot from being a part of the body. 16 The ear might say, “I am not an eye, so I don’t belong to the body.” But saying this would not make the ear stop being a part of the body. 17 If the whole body were an eye, it would not be able to hear. If the whole body were an ear, it would not be able to smell anything. 18-19 If each part of the body were the same part, there would be no body. But as it is, God put the parts in the body as he wanted them. He made a place for each one.20 So there are many parts, but only one body.

21 The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the foot, “I don’t need you!” 22 No, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are actually very important. 23 And the parts that we think are not worth very much are the parts we give the most care to. And we give special care to the parts of the body that we don’t want to show. 24 The more beautiful parts don’t need this special care. But God put the body together and gave more honour to the parts that need it. 25 God did this so that our body would not be divided. God wanted the different parts to care the same for each other. 26 If one part of the body suffers, then all the other parts suffer with it. Or if one part is honored, then all the other parts share its honour.

My challenge to you is to not assume that those with disabilities are the little toes of the body. Neither should we assume they are the ‘dishonourable’ parts.  We could even start by asking if they are the neck? The part that connects the body to the head?!

Here’s a resource you might be interested in. A guide to starting a disability ministry.   It’s aimed at supporting children and carer’s but the same principles should apply to adults too.  (More about that in another blog).

I have some more questions but I don’t want to make this blog post too long.  I’ll continue the questions you might ask in my next blog…

It’s nice to be back.

I did say I wouldn’t be able to blog as often, and indeed it’s been a busy, busy time. However, we’ve been carrying on as we do at the Good News Group and I thought it was worth sharing about our recent Bible studies.

We have always tried to explore the Old Testament as much as the New Testament and to enable our group to understand that all the scriptures point us to Jesus. This term we decided to revisit the book of Daniel as it had been a few years since we last did it. We had six weeks and six chapters, neatly packaged into six stories. We began with the Israelites exile to Babylon and Daniel and his friend’s refusal to eat King Nebuchadnezzar’s food. Then it was the fiery furnace, followed by King Neb’s strange dream about a tree that only Daniel could interpret through God’s gifting. We had one of our Vicar’s (Duncan) coming to tell the story of The writing on the wall, and the story of Daniel in the Lion’s den. We covered three King’s reigns and saw how God brought each proud king to their knees before him. It was great to learn that God really is in charge of all who think they are in charge of this world. We were able to think about today’s rulers and pray for them, asking ourselves if we really believe that God is in control of all the world leaders today.

It was also good to think about how God rescues his people. For Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednigo, it was through dangerous events. He sent his angels to save them from fire and lions. God made them wise and favoured by the kings so they could keep his memory alive in a foreign country, far from their home of Israel. And eventually the kings were faced with humbling themselves before The one true God, or being humbled by him.

As always we had puppets, drama and practical engagement to help us tell these stories. We are still reading the Bible together using the widget symbols and using images from http://www.freebibleimages.com to illustrate the stories. The whole group have been engaged, excited and interested in the book of Daniel. They’ve remembered the stories and asked about what happens next.

As usual, we never ask rhetorical questions…We always get an answer! I wish Sunday church was that interactive!

Here are some photos for you to enjoy…

The writing on the wall.

King Neb having his strange dream.

The Rev Cathy Porter is an online friend of mine.  I’ve appreciated her wisdom and advice for a long time.  She is also a talented writer and illustrator.  Her latest book is one that I love because people with additional needs can be transformed through learning that they can pray to our Lord Jesus and God will hear them.  There’s lots of questions they have (as we all do) and this book explains things in a gentle and simple way – but not simplistic.  I’d use this with some of our adults at the Good News Group and have my own copy already. 🙂

Here it is in Cathy’s own words….

Hi, I’m Cathy. Mum of three children, 2 of whom are autistic and all of whom tend to be anxious, questioning and inquisitive. They need detail. They look for answers. I’m also ordained, and within that feel especially called to reach out to those who are unable for whatever reason to access church life, or who the church are struggling to fully include. In a way, on paper, it seems the most natural and inevitable thing that I should find myself writing – hoping to make the things of faith, the things we believe clearer. To give the church, and parents like me, some resources that aren’t yet there to feel equipped to share our faith and talk faith, and explore issues of faith together in ways that I hope will make things clear at the same time as facing those big questions and the need for accurate, detailed answers head on. In a way I hope they will be a tool a bit like social stories, but about the things of living faith.

So why ‘So many answers’? We all want answers when we ask someone a question. It is always hard for my kids to process when it is not the answer they want from me. We get the ‘you never listen to me’ comments, or the ‘you hate me, I hate you!’- I guess we can all relate to the emotional knee jerk response when we get the wrong answer, and it may as well be that we had no answer at all. In my ministry with children (and adults to be fair) I see the same knee jerk reaction about whether or not God has answered our prayers. Not helped at all by the way we say to each other in church; ‘what an answer to prayer!’ when we see an answer from God we want. I’m also aware that the emotional discomfort we feel about this part of living faith can easily hold us back from encouraging our children, or those we come alongside in ministry from praying boldly, asking God anything and being sure he will answer us. It is hard to explore and explain how we experience and feel God’s answers, and we can find ourselves holding back from the bold so we don’t have to face the difficult task of managing the emotional fall out when the answer we hope for is nowhere to be seen.

In ‘So many answers’ I open the faith-story with the voice of a child expressing their doubts that God always answers prayer, and gradually explore in a very visual way how we experience everyday answers to questions in so many and varied ways. Coming back at the en

feet Cathy.jpg

d of the story to see in God a perfect parent whose answers will always mean ‘I love you!’ whether they are yes, no, maybe or not yet.

As with my other books, at the end are some helpful Bible verses and discussion starters. And some activity pages to encourage the exploring to carry on beyond the faith-story to touch our own personal experiences, in a way drawing our experiences back into the faith-story helping us to know this is true for me too. I really hope and pray that ‘So many answers’ will be a helpful resource for many of us whether as parents of children who need to grapple with these tough questions and doubts, or in our ministry alongside others who need that clarity and honesty about the things of living faith.

You can follow my blog about faith and family life at www.clearlynurturing.wordpress.org

Hello friends, it’s been a while!  I’ve been busy working and planning with little time to do much else.  Thankfully I have a guest blog for you today – all about dyslexia.

Bible

Aurora Betony is dyslexic and creates her own Bible reading sheets using images and text in her preferred version of the Bible.  She says…

I use images from it to create my own illustrated text versions of whichever Bible passage will be read out in my church each Sunday. I copy and paste the text from Bible Gateway. This lets me use my preferred translation (Contemporary English Version). I put the image on the left and the text on the right (in keeping with Easy Read practice). This lets me read the text along with complementary images. I read it through before the service, and then again when the passage is being read aloud in church.

I also find that the process of reconstructing the story (working out which bit of text goes with which picture) helps me start to learn the passage. Knowing in advance what the passage will be really helps me because otherwise I wouldn’t be able to do this preparation. This is a reasonable adjustment many congregations could make, by posting a note on their website or social media.

I’m dyslexic.  Some dyslexic people find reading difficult.  However, my dyslexia doesn’t affect me much in this way – I can mostly read (decode words) accurately.  It’s taking in what I read that is the challenge for me.  So to help myself take in Bible content, I use various resources and techniques.  These are available for anyone who wishes to use them.  So I’d like to tell you about some of them here, and where you can find more.

3 resources that help me engage with the Bible

This lets me access my preferred translation (Contemporary English Version) in electronic print.

This provides images which I use along with text from Bible Gateway to create illustrated versions of Bible passages.  This lets me engage with the text and complementary pictures simultaneously.  The process of reconstructing the story (working out which bit of text goes with which picture) helps me start to learn the passage.

  • Visual recordings

Our Daily Bread Ministries: these are of passages from 1 Kings and 1 Timothy.

Bernie Quah’s: these are of passages from John’s Gospel.

Like the illustrated text versions I produce, visual recordings also present Bible passages in words and complementary pictures.  However, visual recording is quite different: the images are hand-drawn, colourful and simple and the text and images intermingle with each other.

3 techniques that help me engage with the Bible

  • Engaging with the Bible with others

– For example by contributing to the collaborative retelling of a Bible story, or by discussing Bible passages.

  • Gaining the gist of a passage before reading it in print

Visual recordings are especially useful for this as they give a visual summary of the whole passage on one page.

  • Dramatization: acting out a story, seeing it acted out by others, or reading or listening to a dramatized version

– I listen to an audio dramatization of the Contemporary English Version of the New Testament called ‘You’ve got the Time’.

– ‘The Dramatised Bible’[i] presents some passages from the Good News Bible and New International Version as a play script.  This helps me, even if I only read it myself interiorly and imagine it being read by different people.

More resources and techniques for engaging with the Bible

You can find these in a guide I’ve written, which is free to download at https://newroots.online/2017/07/31/top-tips-for-engaging-with-the-bible

Here are some endorsements of my guide

– “What a fantastic resource! It gathers lots of good, practical advice all in one place.”  Riding Lights Theatre Company

– “I LOVE this!”  Mike Breen, founder of 3 Dimensional Ministries, author

– “For people with dyslexia who find engaging with the Bible difficult, Aurora Betony offers some useful tips.”  Crown Court Church, London

Further information on dyslexia

Aurora Betony

[i] Edited by Michael Perry ISBN 978-0551017795

Fear of Disabilities

Brockhall-Main-Building-copy-948x677

Photo from http://www.lancslearningdisabilityinstitutions.org.uk 

In 1985 I went on a college visit to a ‘mental institution’ called Brockhalls Hospital in the beautiful Ribble Valley, near Whalley.  It was part of my Preliminary Certificate in Social Care course and we were doing a topic on learning disability.

It was the first time I had ever met any adults with Profound and Multiple Learning Disabilities (PMLD) or adults with physical conditions like Cerebral Palsy.  There were about a dozen or more adults, propped up in chairs or wheelchairs, arranged in a semi circle around a large day room.  It was sparse and clinical, like a you’d expect a hospital to be.  What they thought as a dozen young students piled in to look at them I don’t know.    I know most of us were caring types and so we plucked up the courage to sit beside one of the residents and try to communicate with them.  I sat by a lady, who to me looked elderly and who was rocking gently, staring into the distance.  I said hello, my name and stroked her hand for a few minutes.  Then we got up and left.

I cried when I got home.  Part of it was the shock.  The shock of seeing people so disabled was one aspect, if I am to be honest.  These people were not part of my everyday experience.  It was also the shock of realising that people had been shut away in this institution, away from the rest of the world.  It was then I began to ask what I could do about that.

This was the mid 80s and things were about to change.   By 1992 the hospital had been closed and most of its residents moved to community homes.  Some of them moved not far from where I was eventually going to live.  And my town is still well serviced by group homes for adults with learning disabilities.  “These people” are part of our community and a meeting people with learning disabilities during a trip to the supermarket, or in the town centre is daily life.   It’s one reason why our Good News Group is so well attended.  It is part of our community, for those who live in our community.

I’ve been reading about the old hospitals. There is a community exhibition that I’m going to see next week and a website to go with it.    I remember my fear on the way to visit Brockholes in that college year.  The 17 year old me was more worried about how I would be able to communicate with the residents, what I might do to offend them and whether I would look stupid in front of my classmates.  Fears my classmates probably shared.   But this visit had a profound effect on me.  Not yet a Christian at that age,  God was already preparing and teaching me for my future.

I learned that fear was born out of my ignorance.  I didn’t know these people I was meeting, I didn’t know about their conditions.  But I also learned that making that first step, of going to sit with that lady and to say hello, took away a lot of that fear.  I’ve always, ever since, made a particular effort to speak and say hello to anyone with disabilities that I meet.  A fulfilling life, an invitation, an offer of help, an opportunity  to join in, a chance to share their talents and serve others – these are all things that people with learning disabilities are prevented from by our fear.  The Church of England are currently debating the value and place of people with Down’s Syndrome in our society and Churches.  What’s the biggest problem they face? – not things they can’t do – but other people’s fears.  These fears are always wrapped up in political language…the scarcity of resources,  quality of life and ‘their own good’.  When what we really fear is the challenge to us in making a more inclusive society, sharing our resources more evenly and putting the systems in place to help those who need better accessibility.

I know people fear what they don’t know or understand.  I know we fear embarrassment, or offending someone or not knowing what to say or do.  We fear having to be challenged out of our comfortable ways that only make comfort for certain people, and make barriers for others.

Imagine being the one who no-one talks to, or no-one bothers to try to communicate with, the one other people think is worth less than others?  We have to take God’s words to our hearts and “Do not fear”.   Because our fear is causing too many people to be excluded, bullied, exploited, abused and ignored – and that IS in our churches as well as in society.

God took the initiative in communicating his love for us.  If he’d not bothered, we would truly be lost.  His son Jesus communicates the same message to everyone.  So my plea is please ‘do not fear’ and make the effort to find out, welcome and include people with learning disabilities and other additional needs into your lives.

Nurse Holding Elderly Patient's Hand

picture from http://www.google.co.uk stock

(Note: This post came out of a conversation I had some time ago with a friend who had spent his early life in one of these institutions and had moved out in the 80s when he was about the same age as me at the time.  He had a lot to say about being ignored by society and I said I would try my best to communicate the things we had talked about.) 

 

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