Supporting churches to include people with Autism and Learning Disabilties

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Our week at Keswick is separate from the main meetings of morning Bible Study.  There is a very good reason for this – many people with learning disabilities that come to our meetings find the main meetings inaccessible.  The language is too complex, it’s talk based and it is a long time to sit still and listen.  There are Bible passages to read and follow – not easy if you can’t read well or at all.  And so our meetings do provide access to the teaching in a way that is visual, explains complex or ‘religious’ words and concepts and allows the congregation to interact, join in and have their Bible teaching in more manageable chunks.  We have used the NIrV Accessible Bible all week and the easy access language in this version has been easy to use and well received.

Keswick Convention are very supportive of the work we do.  Providing these sessions allows families with adults with learning disabilities to access the Convention as a family.  Some can come to our meetings on their own while their parents and carers are able to go to the main meeting.  Others need the continuing support from their parents and carers but they are able to join in something together…rather than feeling that they are having to ‘entertain’ their son or daughter in a meeting that is too complex for them to access.  (It’s not surprising they get bored in a long meeting they cannot understand so well – I do!)  What it does is allow families to feel that all their needs are met in one place, that they can holiday together at the Keswick Convention and feel that all are spiritually refreshed.  I think there may be more we can do to develop this in the future.  More support for the often elderly parents still caring for adult children might be helpful.  We do a lot of praying for and with the guests themselves and a lot of encouraging them to use their gifts in the sessions.  We come alongside them and talk with them, and often find we have a lot in common.  Our love of Jesus is the most amazing thing we share and the Holy Spirit moves amongst us in this week.  You can feel His presence even in the simplest conversations and things that we share together.  But after Keswick, many are going back to complex or difficult situations and it would be good to spend more time praying with and supporting them more individually.

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Another thing we do at the Keswick Convention is go up on main stage on the Wednesday evening meeting.  These seven minutes are a wonderful time for the group and a chance for the other visitors to the Convention to see what we do.  We usually interview one of our guests, giving their testimony.  This year a young woman called Lisa, who is from Glasgow talked about her faith in the wake of having 17 major operations in her life and another one soon to come.  She talked about how she loves working with the children in her church and we could see what a delight she is to her church and they to her.  We then led the congregation in singing one of the songs we had been learning all week “What can I do to be like Jesus?”.  Singing and signing so that everyone could join in.  I took Molly, my puppet up on stage and one of our guests also brought her puppet (Molly’s twin we reckon!) and her confidence as we sang and danced with our puppets together was wonderful.  Instead of being at the back of the group, hiding her face, she was at the front, sharing the limelight with her puppet!

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Being part of the mainstream, even for those seven minutes is important.  I thank the Keswick Convention because they see it as something very important to include in their programme.  Its not to ‘show us off’ or say ‘Arn’t we good to have this here?’ – but they see the Livability/Prospects sessions as an important part of the programme and a way to make the convention accessible for families with adult children with learning disabilities.  I’m looking forward to finding out more about their accessibility for children with additional needs as one of my daughter’s friends was a ‘buddy’ for a child with additional needs all week.  So I will report on that when I find out.  If you were there and want to tell me about your experiences, I’d be really grateful.

Also the Keswick Convention give us a slot to do a seminar on the Thursday morning. Andrew and I delivered a talk on making a sermon/talk accessible through using different forms of communication and visuals etc (based on one of my previous blog posts).  There were only a few people who turned up so I do think there is a lot we can do to advertise and organise this better.  I’d love to offer a whole week of seminars – we in the additional needs stream have a lot to say! From theology to practical tips – every church has something to learn about accessibility.

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The best acting award…

All week at Keswick we have used drama in our meetings.  The Bible passages that we were learning from were from Luke and were excerpts from Jesus’s life and interactions with people he met.

All you need is a simple script (but be willing for participants ad-libbing),  a few bits of costume and the odd prop or two.  We also used the Accessible NIrV Bible all week.

On Monday we did two drama’s looking at Jesus and the sinful woman at the home of Simon the Pharisee and the parable of the two debtors – Luke 7:36-53

On Tuesday we looked at The 10 lepers who were healed – Luke 17:11-17

On Wednesday we looked at Zacchaeus  – Luke 19:1-10

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Zaccheaus and Jesus.

On Thursday we looked at Jesus calls Peter – Luke 5:1-11

On Friday we looked at  The Disciples on the Emmaus Road – Luke 24:13-35

Drama has many advantages.  First it slows down the story so that those who take longer to process information can do so.  It breaks down the story into chunks and adds action to the dialogue.   We show that the events happened to real people and that Jesus came to meet with and help people who had needs just as we do.

Sitting in an hour and a half long session could be really difficult and very boring if all we did was talk.  Concentration and attention may be difficult for some of our guests (and the team!) and breaking up the session with drama, songs and puppets helps keep everyone’s attention and interest.

Participation can be a really good way to make people with learning disabilities feel valued.  We believe passionately that we are all church together and giving the guests the chance to share the story telling with us is important too.  Even those who don’t want to participate enjoy watching others who do.  We were so blessed by all those who acted and brought their own expression and interpretation of the drama to our story.  Three memorable moments for me were on Monday when a shy guest did a fabulous job of wiping Jesus’s feet with her hair (it was a wig!) and the joy as she joined in the drama nearly every day.  Then the deaf/ partically-sighted lady who brought humour into the telling of our ‘parable of the debtors’ story.  And the visitor from the Carlisle group on Thursday whose expression of shock, delight and excitement when Peter caught the whole net of fish in our makeshift boat.  Here are some of the best photos.

So much happened this week that I have another couple of posts to do but I’ll get to them next week.  I’m at home now and feel like I’m still there.  I thank God with all my heart for a week of such blessings.

All the room was full of people using puppets

What a great workshop we had. Everyone engrossed in activity.

Two years ago I introduced puppets to the Keswick Convention Prospects sessions and they were very popular.   Molly came to ask lots of questions and we held a puppeteering workshop on the Tuesday afternoon.  Here’s a reminder:  People, puppets and praise.

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These two ladies are very good puppeteers!

Last year my daughter and her friend, who both are on the team of our Good News Group,  took a similar workshop.

This year I wanted to move the puppet skills on and teach something more useful for those who had done puppets with us before.  We also had to make sure that the language and processing levels were right for the group too.  So this is what we did…

First we taught the whole group the basic puppet skills such as making the puppet look at the audience, how to use their wrist and arm for different kinds of movement, how to show expressions and character traits.  My daughter then taught us all some basic dance moves such as ‘the walk’,  ‘the slide’, the shimmy’ and ‘the bop’!

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We then split into two groups and I took my group to a classroom to learn how to have a conversation between two puppets…using ‘knock, knock’ jokes.  I was thrilled that this worked really well.  Participants were able to practice their lip-syncing and puppet eye-contact and taking turns in a simple conversation.  Followed by a hearty laugh at the end!

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My daughter taught the other group a simple co-ordinated dance to the song “Happy” by Pharrel Williams.  They worked in pairs to make their puppets dance together following the sequence she had devised.  Again, this worked really well.

Feedback.

  • Two years ago one woman loved the puppets so much that she got her mum to buy her a puppet just like Molly.  Since then she has been almost inseparable from her puppet, called Jessica, and she uses Jessica to be her communication and confidence support.  This young woman has grown in confidence a lot since she bought Jessica.
  • An older woman with dementia had come along with her family.  She held a teddy bear puppet all through the session and learned to make it dance.  When she came to our meeting this morning, she asked for the puppet again so she could sit with it.  It made her smile.
  • A woman from Malaysia visiting the Convention said she had been taught how to make puppets and had made many…but hadn’t been sure how to use them.  This session gave her lots of ideas and the confidence to develop some ways of using the puppets in her setting in that country.
  • The whole afternoon was such a delight.  Everyone who came was involved, engaged and was able to access the session.  Special thanks go to Karen, our signer, who enabled one of our deaf guests to access every part of the dance teaching session through using some very inventive and imaginative strategies!  She also made very good use of my signing puppet and named him “Hans”.

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Why use puppets?

Puppets seem to appeal universally to all ages and abilities.  We’ve always find that most adults with learning disabilities find them fascinating and enjoyable.  And they can be age appropriate by the actions and content you use with them.  For example, we often use our puppets to bring a Bible character to life.  Our puppets can also cover current affairs, discuss difficult issues and ask all the questions you often wish you could.  They also are a great source of humour and can easily be cheeky which often makes the listeners laugh and be on the puppets’ side.

Puppets can also be used for ‘singing’ along to a song or dancing to it.  This can enhance worship and sometimes provide a reflective visual performance for people to engage with.

Puppets can be the ‘voice’ of someone who is shy or finding it hard to communicate.  Like the young woman in our group, the puppet can build a character that they wish they were able to be, and in time, build their own confidence so that they can do things they wouldn’t have done before.  For example, that same young woman now sits with different people in church apart from her mother.  This is helping her learn to become more independent.

There are lots of other things too which I can write at another time.  I’m so tired today as we had a party after being on the main stage on Wednesday (I’ll write about that next!) and I didn’t get to bed till 1.00am.  I never stay up that late!!!

Oh, and my daughter and her boyfriend got engaged here in Keswick yesterday…. 😀

 

I’m catching up on two days here at Keswick as yesterday was a full on day with no time to blog.  I’ll tell you about the afternoon puppet workshop soon.

The main Keswick meetings are looking at the same Bible passages as we are, but in the evening.  That’s a good advantage for our guests who will have visited the teaching already that morning and so will be more familiar with (and hopefully more able to understand) the evening teaching.

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We looked at the story of the 10 Lepers on Tuesday morning.  We focussed on the one out of the 10 who came back to give thanks and praise to Jesus….and he was the Samaritan – the outsider.  We discussed that the other 9 had wanted the blessing but not the one who gives the blessing.  Are we like that?  Are we only wanting the gifts without wanting to know the giver?   Gratitude should be a huge part of our lives with Jesus.  He is God and did so much for us.  It was good to be reminded in Psalm 1  that we shouldn’t continue with bad habits (such as taking God for granted or grumbling that he’s not doing what we want him to) and that we should instead live each moment with gratitude to him.  It is he who gives us life and hope.  We wrote our gratitude prayers on sticky notes and stuck them to the cross.  That’s a good visual activity to do for any group. Maybe you could think of 5 things to be grateful for each day, to get you in the good habit of being grateful?

Here’s my 5 things…

  1. Thanking God for his creation.  Keswick is a place where God showed his flair for mountains and nature.  Ive seen bats, osprey’s, a friendly pig in the field next to our accommodation and even some sunshine.  Praise God!
  2. Thanking God for the people on the team.  They are all differently gifted and it’s all just working really well.  He’s called all of us from different circumstances and it really feels like an honour to serve him in this one week of opening his Word to people with learning disabilities.
  3. Thanking God that He is God and that the world really is in his hands.
  4. Thanking God that for over 140 years the people of Keswick have welcomes thousands of Christians into their town and allowed the Word of God to be preached freely and safely.
  5. Thanking God for Jesus.  For his death on the cross and that he saved me.

Today (Wednesday) we had a group from Kendal joining us and told the story of Zacchaeus.  Helen, a guest that has been coming for years and who was always so quiet and shy – has been volunteering for every drama this week.  She played each part she was given really well and today she played the part of Jesus.  We were so proud of her.  Another highlight was Andrew donning his cap on the side of his head and doing the “Zacc Rap”!

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We were learning that if we repent (and what ‘to repent’ means) then we are forgiven.  This was dramatically played out in our practical activity.  Each person wrote, drew or made marks to represent the things they wanted to say sorry to God for.  Then we put all their pieces of paper through a shredder…

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It is really important that all people understand that we cannot pay our debt to God, caused by our sin.   No matter what language or impairment we have, the need for salvation is the same.  And once we say sorry to God, he forgives us and forgets our sins.  Thank you Lord!

Please pray for tomorrow morning.  Andrew and I have a one hour seminar to deliver about how to write an accessible talk.  We would really like people to come along who really need and want to hear this advice and that will take it back to their churches and do something more accessible.  We are basing the talk on the blog post I wrote “Tips for writing an accessible talk”.    A full room would be fab….especially a full room of people who really want to do something with this.

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All set up and ready…

Today was the first day of the teaching sessions and we used drama, songs and Molly the puppet (who always asks the questions that others might be thinking!).

We were learning about Luke 7:36-53 where Jesus is invited to the home of Simon the Pharisee (a religious leader).  The other guests are treated with respect but Jesus seems to be a bit of a novelty guest and isn’t even offered water to wash his feet.

Apparently these events were a bit of an open house.  So anyone could come in and watch the spectacle and listen to the debate.  When a ‘sinful’ woman comes in and goes straight to Jesus it it obvious that the guests are a bit disgusted.  As she weeps tears that wet his feet and wipes them dry with her hair,  she also gets out a very expensive bottle of perfume and pours it over Jesus’s feet.

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Simon’s servant washing all feet except Jesus’s

I can imagine the look Simon the Pharisee had on his face, but Jesus knew exactly what he was thinking.  He challenged him by telling him the story of two debtors.  Each one owed the money lender money.  One only a little and one much more.  Both showed how sorry they were that they couldn’t pay back the debt, and both were forgiven and let off their debt.

I was leading the drama about the parable of the debtors.  What was a highlight for us was a deaf female guest dragged up our signer to do one of the parts together.  It was fabulous how they worked together to sign, speak and interpret the part she had to play.  And we all laughed in delight as her sense of humour came out.  When the debtor said she could not pay, the audience said ‘ahhh’ in sympathy.  The signer signed this and the lady mimed a violin playing!  You had to be there….but it was really funny!

Of course, we discussed that this parable isn’t about money.  It’s about our own lives and the sins we have done against God.  Some of us think we have led a reasonably good life and don’t owe so much to God.  Some of us know we have done so much against God and others that we owe him a huge debt.  The thing is – none of us can pay our debt.  And that is the reason God sent his Son Jesus to pay our debt for us.   This enabled us today to ask people if they were sorry for their sins and if they wanted to say sorry to God, asking him for forgiveness and wanting to follow Jesus for the rest of their lives.  Of course, many who come have already done this so they could pray for others to know and understand this – or they could remind themselves that they did pray this once and are still God’s child.  They are still forgiven and can still ask the Lord to give them all they need to live for him each day.

Here is the prayer we used…

Lord Jesus Christ

I know that I have sinned and done things that have hurt you.

I want to stop doing the things that are wrong and live your way.

Thank you for dying on the cross so that I can be forgiven.

Jesus be my Saviour and Lord.

Holy Spirit come into my life to help me live your way. 

Thank you Lord.  Amen

And here is Molly –  she is here again and asking all the awkward questions.  Today she wanted to know why Simon had been so rude to Jesus and why Jesus forgave the woman’s sins.  Thankfully,  Andrew had some great answers to help us ALL understand.

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It’s been two years since I came to Keswick as part of the Prospects Team.   I blogged our week (starting here, Why volunteer?, A bit of a drama,  People, puppets and praise,  God’s heart, Would I do it again?  ) and really enjoyed being part of  a wider work in the inclusion of people with learning disabilities.

I’m back this year and am going to blog again, and this time reflect on what’s happening in other groups across the country.  The theme for Keswick this year is “Captivated” and to be captivated by Jesus through God’s word is the aim.

I have to admit – I’ve already been captivated by God’s creation.  This is the view from my bedroom window in the accommodation the team are sharing….

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I’ve brought along the puppets again.  In fact, I’ve so many puppets with me that I’m hoping the workshop on Tuesday is very well attended.  I’m blessed to have my daughter helping me out (along with the team) on that day.  Our aim is to teach some puppeteering skills and then split the group into two.  One group will learn to lip sync and dance to a song with my daughter, and the other group will learn to lip sync and tell “knock knock” jokes with me!  Here are just a small selection of the puppets I’ve brought with me – thanks to a lot of friends lending me their collections for the week!

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The wider family

Already I have spoken to Audrey who runs a Prospects group in Kendal and Helen who runs a group in Worthing.  These groups both meet monthly,  and have been going for many years.  What is so encouraging is listening to their passion about ‘enabling’ people with learning disabilities to grow in their faith and to serve and use their gifts in the church.  What is disappointing is the common negative responses we’ve all come across from people who have low expectations of what people with learning disabilities can understand and achieve.  I’m going to interview them in more depth as the week goes on as it would be good to have a wider view of what Prospects groups do around the country and share it with you all.  I am really encouraged to see how many groups there are.  All quietly getting on with teaching, discipling and enabling people with learning disabilities to be part of the Body of Christ.

In other news,

two churches in my area have recently approached us about setting up their own groups.  Please pray that the leaders in those churches get behind this and fully support them.  Pray that the volunteers that they need come forward and that people with learning disabilities in those areas will come to church and know Jesus as their saviour.  How wonderful it is to see God building his church with those who have for so long been seen as less than human, unable to understand or participate.

In my experience – that’s the best kind of church I have ever been to.

Finally, I want to say a huge thank you to everyone who has messaged and spoken to me after my last two blog posts.  I have felt like the storms are abating and that the sun is beginning to shine through the clouds.  Your love and advice has been so appreciated and I know God hasn’t finished with us yet.  Bless you and I hope he will carry you through your storms too.  In Jesus’s name.   

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Some of you will have read a post I put up a few days ago called “Storm before the Calm.”  I have taken this down as I was embarrassed at how raw it was.  I was having a bad weekend emotionally but thanks to a lovely friend who helped me feel much better after a good chat,  I’m rewriting it as something that can stay on the blog.  (Thanks so much to those that already replied – I have all your comments and you are much appreciated).

Like a lot of people, I have been quite upset by things way beyond my control.  The main things that have ‘stormed’ into my life are:

  1. The news – terrorist attacks, tower block fires, the stupid election (my views are my own!) and just not knowing what the government are doing. I still don’t want Brexit and the process frightens me. It’s unsettling, hard to escape.  Two girls from my town died in the Manchester attack.  Everyone I know shares the worry and grief over all the incidents and events in our country these past months.

 

  1. A death happened. A young person took their own life.  I’m grieving for them and their family.  I have been researching mental health and young people and find that we are ignoring the risks and pressures that affect our young people.  It feels like we are sleepwalking into a crisis.  Many people think that’s already happening.  I’m praying and wondering what the church should be doing.

 

  1. For some time I’ve been wondering about how I can share much more of the resources we’ve built up over 10 years of our Good News Group. Particularly our Bible teaching materials but also sharing our story and training for churches.  I want so much to give our adults in the group, opportunity to speak for themselves and for others with learning disabilities to have access to good teaching materials.

 

And this is where I asked for help in my last post.  If you read includedbygrace regularly I’d like to hear from you.  If you’ve happened to read it by random google search, I want to hear from you.  I want to know what you think of includedbygrace and the information I share.  What it means to you and how it has helped you (or not).

If you want to say a pray for this please pray that God will make this what he wants it to be.  I have been blessed by a conversation with two web developers who are interested in designing an accessible website with me.  Maybe that’s a thing that includedbygrace can become.  I have no funding, only faith at this point in time.  But I believe in a God who funds his own projects.

My second idea is to build a team of trainers from our Good News Group who can tell churches how they can be better included.  I experimented with doing this by video when I went to London and this was one way of sharing their voice.  Locally I can take people to places we speak.

Thirdly, I’d love to reach out to special schools in our area.  Maybe with assemblies or sensory Bible stories.  I’d need a team of GNG members to help me…and again the logistics are huge.  But not for God!

In my mind are a lot of other random ideas.  I only want to go in the direction God has prepared and not waste time on things that won’t work.  The aim is to spread the gospel and disciple children, teens and adults with learning disabilities, giving them accessible Bible teaching and resources.  Also, it is to equip churches to do this work too.  We are a small team…living hopefully in the storms…

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