I suppose you might be reading this because you have some interest in making your church more accessible for people with disabilties. I don’t know if you are disabled yourself, or are a parent or carer, or maybe you just see that there’s a part of God’s family missing in your church. I don’t know what term you prefer, a label or none. I use different terms on purpose, but most of all, we are God’s children in Christ. So welcome, brother or sister!
I asked the wonderful people in the Additional Needs Alliance what they thought made a good advocate. Anyone speaking on the behalf of others is essentially an advocate. It had me thinking about the nature of advocacy and how it might work.
- The first and most important point was to be a good listener. To be able to speak on the behalf of others, you need to be able to know what they would say. BEWARE….this is where we face the ever present danger of ASSUMING. We patronise people if we assume we know what they would want or say without really knowing. Even if people cannot use words, there should be opportunity for them to make their thoughts known through other communication methods. Sometimes just being with them, seeing how they respond to different situations can give us all the clues we need to understand what a person likes or doesn’t.
- Relationship is at the heart of advocacy. If we wish to speak on the behalf (or even better…alongside) people with disabilties, then we need to build friendships and give them our time. If you want to suggest changes in church, set up a ministry or change attitudes then relationships give us the foundations for real action for real people.
- Is it because they cannot speak for themselves? Going back to point 2, why are we taking on this role of advocate? It is better that we open up the way for a person to speak for themselves, supporting and enabling them rather than speaking for them. I would love to take some of our group to a PCC meeting and let them use symbols and Makaton to tell everyone there about their experience of church! (They’d all be up for that!)
- Knowlegde is useful too. We have an amazing resource in the Internet, social media, blogs and access to research at our finger tips. This too comes with a BEWARE warning…each article or blog is an individual experience and we need to take a wider view, bringing all aspects together. For example, I have learned so much about what it is like to have autism from many fantastic articles and blogs, that I now understand how faith develops and can be understood despite some of the differences in thinking and processing in autistic people. I know that some don’t mind being called autistic, that it is their identity. I would really recommend the Oxford Diocese advice on supporting people with autism in churches. Written by an autistic person, the lovely Ann Memmott. http://www.oxford.anglican.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/autism_guidelines.pdf
- Be gracious. As soon as people start to feel threatened they get defensive and we end up in a cycle of bitterness. I have found small steps work best, especially if you are suggesting a change to a well established way of doing things. Even if it seems like it is a long hard struggle, get people around you who will pray and remind you of grace. In all things, Christ will be our greatest advocate. And pray. And forgive. And pray.
- Be bold. Pray first. Speak up when something is clearly unjust and damaging to a person with additional needs. They often can’t or feel able to speak up for themselves, especially if they feel very hurt or excluded by the actions or attitudes of the church. This bit scares me a lot. But an important part of advocacy is not to let wrong things continue.
- If possible preach inclusion, preach the gospel in as many ways as all people can access it. Make discipling and enabling people with additonal needs part of what the church does. Leaders who do this will be great advocates and role models for their congregation.
- There is another kind of advocacy I have come across more and more, that is speaking up for people with additonal needs in society. Since the general election there has been a lot of fear about how further cuts will affect vulnerable and disabled people. Christians are speaking up, organising protests and pleading with the government to look after, not make life harder for disabled people to access what the rest of us take for granted. Look at the campaign by Compassionate Britain http://compassionatebritain.org.uk if you are interested in this.
It seems that the key to advocating is definitely getting to know people with additional needs, and much of it is done by people who are family members. That places a great burden on them, having to advocate and care for their families. No wonder church becomes such a difficult place to be for them. There must be a better way. When I look at how Jesus cared for and welcomed people who were weary and had all kinds of needs, then coming to him was a gentle and wonderful experience. I am just thinking aloud here. so many of us want to see inclusive churches. Some are and we praise God for them. I am struggling to understand how people have been hurt, turned away and ignored in the one place they shouldn’t be. I am so glad for the wonderful pastors, vicars, youth leaders and other Christians who love all people and will do all they can to include them. I’d recommend to all of you to look at becoming a Roofbreaker, with Through the Roof Charity. Here is a structure and resources to help you become an effective advocate in your church. http://www.throughtheroof.org/info-and-resources/be-a-roofbreaker/