Supporting churches to include people with Autism and Learning Disabilties

Posts tagged ‘#disabilites’

Access issues for the disabled at church

There is a reality in many of our churches – they are just not that physically accessible.  This is the entrance to our church…

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There’s another entrance, fortunately, but to get into the building, those who come in wheelchairs have to park on the church hall car park, come through the graveyard and be pushed up a wooden ramp into the  building. (A good path, lit and smooth has been laid but it’s not much fun on a dark and rainy night…especially one like last week with hailstorms).  Once inside we have only one toilet (it is disabled friendly) and from there in the building is level, we replaced the old pews with chairs a few years ago and so wheelchair users can sit wherever they like.

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You see, the word “CAN’T” is not allowed to be a barrier to people accessing the church.  On a Wednesday meeting at the Good News Group we may have up to nine people in wheelchairs joining us.  The co-ordination and effort put in by the people themselves, the team and the carers runs like a military operation.  I only realised this term as for a short time I seemed to be ‘in charge’ of making sure everyone got OUT of the building and to the right car, taxi or lift at the end of our meeting.  I can’t wait until Bob comes back, he’s much better at the job than me!

Our building is old. It is beautiful, historical and listed.  So we can’t put a ramp in by the front steps, apparently.  We’ve had to find creative ways of meeting legislation for access and making the building accessible to all.  It seems to work…even though we are aware that without all the help from others, our members who use a wheelchair might not get into church at all.

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The problem of old, inaccessible buildings is a a reality for many churches.  We have legislation to comply with but more than that we need to do all we can to make a church easily accessible for all. I’d rather tear down and rebuild a useless building…but that’s not always possible. (we had enough complaints when we took out the pews to put chairs in!)   The alternative is to do church in another place that is accessible.

Saying we “CAN’T” isn’t an option…not because of the law, but because church is a family of all believers, not just those who can get there up the steps…

Consider the history of people with learning disabilities in discipling them

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Did you watch “Call the Midwife” over the Christmas break?  For those of you who didn’t, it’s a drama set in the 1950s and 60s about midwives in the East End of London.  This Christmas episode focussed on a group of unmarried mothers in a mother and baby ‘home’.  It was a bit (well, a lot) sanitised in the programme but reminded me of the way unmarried and pregnant girls used to be treated.  Their babies were often taken from them (whether they wanted it or not) and we can only imagine the effect on a whole hidden layer of our society – the mothers and the children, still alive and whose lives were forever changed by the decisions that were made.

My own grandmother was an unmarried mother in the 1930s. She had a terrible time as the family outcast, but the kindness of her sister and later reconciliation with her parents enabled her to bring up my dad as a single mum.  No wonder she was always such a fiercely determined woman!  Yes, things changed in society in the 1960s and 1970s but there are centuries of ill treatment and children being abandoned to overcome.  History is full of the illegitimate children of kings, but so many ordinary people must have been in the same situation, outcasts from the start.

The same attitudes went for those who were born with disabilities.  So many were outcasts and later in history shut away in large institutions. Some families bravely kept them at home, but education and employment were hardly options for these children.  Education and inclusion for people with learning disabilities, is a rather new concept.  In history we read about the ‘village idiot’ and the Victorian ‘asylums’, of homeless and neglected people with little opportunity in life but to rely on the charity of others.  Life expectancy was low for many people with learning and other disabilities.

Are you glad that you live in these times.  We have an imperfect but much improved education system.  It is enshrined in law that a broad and balanced education is a right for all.  We have social and national health services and community living.  There are some opportunities for employment.   Oh yes…there is far to go and much to complain about…but what if we start from a place of gratitude.  What we do have is a blessing and we can build upon the work of others and make it better in the future.

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In our churches, communities and towns are people with disabilities in their 40s, 50s, 60s and older who were born and raised when times were very different. In our group we have at least one person who grew up in a large institution… a large ‘metal’ hospital.  (As it was known). Now living in the community and well integrated into ordinary life, it is easy to forget how this early experience might have shaped his life.  Do we take the time to ask sensitively about the early lives of the people with learning and other disabilities in our churches?  it is easy to assume that they had schooling and support when they were younger…and maybe they did…but asking them about it might reveal some very interesting insights into the way they have been treated and brought up.  And be careful…we need to be very sensitive to safeguarding and respecting privacy.  Did you know that if an adult with disabilities reveals abuse or accusation to you, then it is their right to report it OR NOT?  This is the difference between adults and children, even if they are vulnerable.  I can cover this issue in another post if people are interested.

If we are to minister to the whole person and disciple them, then we do need to be aware of where they have come from.  I know from my own experience how Jesus ministers to the deepest and most vulnerable parts and heals what has hurt me or made me think wrongly.   People who have learning disabilities and maybe don’t have the words to say or work out what they need healing for, may be able to tell you about their childhood or early experiences.  A parent or carer may know some things that can help.  Then we must pray.  Only Jesus can tell us where to be sensitive and where to challenge.  Only Jesus knows each of us and all we have been through.  He knows what has shaped us for good or ill, and can heal….oh…he can heal…and make us whole in spirit.   It is how we are disciple and how we grow.  Praise God that none of us are different or excluded from this.

A Living Hope – 1 Peter 1:3-9

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. God has great mercy, and because of his mercy he gave us a new life. This new life brings us a living hope through Jesus Christ’s resurrection from death. Now we wait to receive the blessings God has for his children. These blessings are kept for you in heaven. They cannot be ruined or be destroyed or lose their beauty.

God’s power protects you through your faith, and it keeps you safe until your salvation comes. That salvation is ready to be given to you at the end of time. I know the thought of that is exciting, even if you must suffer through different kinds of troubles for a short time now. These troubles test your faith and prove that it is pure. And such faith is worth more than gold. Gold can be proved to be pure by fire, but gold will ruin. When your faith is proven to be pure, the result will be praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ comes.

You have not seen Christ, but still you love him. You can’t see him now, but you believe in him. You are filled with a wonderful and heavenly joy that cannot be explained. Your faith has a goal, and you are reaching that goal—your salvation.

It’s Christmas!

Donkey’s, sheep, kings, innkeepers, shepherds, Mary, Joseph, angels, robots, dinosaurs and aliens…

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Yes, it’s the Nativity season, and in my primary teaching years it was the most stressful yet exciting and yes, shedding-a-tear-time in the whole year.  We generally kept to the Nativity theme, although some links were quite tenuous! My favourite one was done completely in rhyme, the whole way through.  I managed to get about 5 consecutive years out of that one…but then someone brought in ‘The Grumpy Innkeeper’ and we had to go with that…but still…

Do you remember the Nativities you were involved with as a child?  I have vivid memories of going to school in my pyjamas when I was 7 years old…and the song…”Girls and boys, leave your toys, make no noise, kneel at His crib and worship Him…” I can still remember most of the words!

My worst experience was at Sunday School. There was a lack of boys in the group and they needed a Joseph…I can’t tell you the embarrassment of being a 12 year old girl being forced to be Joseph in the Nativity…the only saving feature is that they made me wear a beard – and so at least I wasn’t that recognisable.  My brother took the mickey out of me for ages after that!

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Finally, in my last year at primary school I got to be Mary, with lines to learn and everything.  My best friend was angel Gabriel, but we kept being late for before-school rehearsals and were threatened with the sack!  We weren’t sacked in the end, phew! My mum remembers this performance with pride, but only because I carried on courageously as the scenery collapsed around me…and stood my ground as I refused to hold Joseph’s hand as we walked around the school hall on our way to Bethlehem!

We all remember the Nativity and children everywhere are going through the same story these next few weeks. for many of them it will be the only time they hear anything about God’s Son Jesus and let us pray that seeds will be sown as they wonder who this baby was and what relevance he has to their lives.

Churches too are gearing up for the celebration….and we too, at the Good News Group are getting ready to share our version of the wonderful story this Wednesday.  Please pray for us.  It is our main outreach of the year and we encourage all our members to invite their friends, housemates, families and carers to come and share in our joyful celebration.  All our members are involved and doing something, reading, praying, acting, puppeteering and the tableau that we will create as we go along will not leave a dry eye in the church!

Here’s a photo or two of our service last year, and if you are local – come and join us 5.45pm start, Leyland St Andrew’s church!

Actors and Readers

Actors and Readers

Singing and Signing "Come and join the celebration".

Singing and Signing “Come and join the celebration”.

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News and Dreams!

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“Nothing about me without me…”

It’s something we really believe in our ministry with adults with learning disabilities.  As we get asked to speak and share what we do, here and there, we try at all times to make sure that a mixture of our members who have learning disabilities have the chance to come along and share in what we do.  We are a team.

However, my trip to London this weekend sees me travelling on my own.  Mostly due to logistics such as time and cost.  I have been very blessed with gifts that have covered most of my costs and a lovely new dress I found in a local charity shop!! Don’t tell anyone – it’s purple (my favourite colour) and lovely!

On Saturday morning I’m going to be one of the people interviewed about disability and the church on Premier Gospel’s Family Hour.  Here’s the link if you want to listen http://www.premiergospel.org.uk/shows/29  I’m so nervous and am hoping people understand my northern accent…I don’t have a posh version!

Then the afternoon will be spent at the Christian New Media Conference  http://www.newmediacentreofexcellence.org.uk/cnmac/conference ….and then… the awards evening.  Lots of people have asked me if I’ve prepared an acceptance speech, but I haven’t.  I’m really not expecting to win, but I might need to think of what I might say? Just in case?

Other events

Three of us from the Good News Group, including a lovely young woman who has Asperger’s Syndrome and loves to help people understand how disabled people can do anything other people can do, went down to Walsall this week.  We did a short presentation as part of the Churches for All training course http://www.throughtheroof.org/enabling-church-training-course/ and had the pleasure of learning from the other presenters there too.  We concentrated on showing as well as telling the participants how we make the Bible accessible to adults with learning disabilities.

Dreams and Ambitions

We can be very motivated when we have a dream.  I have had many dreams in my life but at the moment I am trying to work out which are my dreams and which are God’s.  The truth is only HIS dreams will be the right ones and often they don’t come easy.  What seems exciting on the outside can be risky, challenging and cause difficulties in other areas that we may not anticipate.  It is easy to make a dream our idol, focussing on that rather than the author of the dream.   We should keep in mind how many unlikely people God used to fulfil his plans in the old and new testaments and throughout history.  It is more likely that God will use one of the disabled people from our group to reach out, touch the hearts of others and complete God’s plans, rather than me or any other of the leaders.  That is why as a team, we are committed to prayer and looking out for the gifts and dreams of our group members so we can allow and help God’s plans rather than hinder them.

If you are a member of a church that does not yet include people with learning disabilities – thank you for even reading this blog and please do look at some other posts I have written to see what else I have to say.  I want to encourage you to dream.  A church with the whole body complete – a place that includes ALL people is God’s dream. If he has shared that dream with you – be honoured and humbled – and pray it into being.  Trust him and seek him, so that you will not be surprised who and what he uses to bring that dream into fruition.  Try not to use the word ‘BUT…’

God Bless you and do get in touch if you need help or support http://www.includedbygrace@talktalk.net

 

Assumptions (trying not to get cross)

I’ve been wondering whether to write about Lord Freud this week. Earlier in the week a tape emerged that exposed the Conservative Minister as having said that maybe some people with learning disabilities may not be worth paying the minimum wage to. Rather than repeat what I thought, you could read what I said to Sarah Lothian, writing for Christian Today, here… http://www.christiantoday.com/article/lord.freud.and.disability.row.what.is.a.person.really.worth/41755.htm

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In this blog I am more concerned with the attitudes to people with learning disabilities within the church. Where are the people that Lord Freud refers to in our churches? Where is our example? Are they serving in church? Are they working for the church? Are they supported to work by the church? In some churches they are, but in others, attitudes are woefully outdated. We can have such low expectations.

Matthew 7:4-5  (NIV)
4 How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? 5 You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.

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I and the team at the Good News Group have been speaking about what we do at various churches and Christian groups lately. We’ve loved it and had great feedback that we have helped people think about how they can include people with learning disabilities better and we have hopefully increased the expectations that they have. For each talk, at least one of our members with learning disabilities has accompanied us and contributed to the session.
I have to confess, I am frustrated and cross with some of the assumptions I have come across from different Christians in a few places this past year. One of the most annoying things is the low expectations some people have of those with learning disabilities. Or the assumption that they are all the same, or all ‘affectionate’ or all having ‘the understanding of a 3 year old’.  I have been asked if we are wasting our time trying to do Bible teaching to people who can’t even talk. It was very difficult not to give a very rude reply to that.  And yes, the person saying it was a ‘nice’ person who genuinely did not have the knowledge or experience of people with learning disabilties to see how partronising this attitude really is.

It is so important to have high expectations and then support people in achieving them. Take access to the whole Bible, for a start. Let’s not assume that adult with learning disabilities can’t understand the deeper and more complicated concepts and issues of the Bible. We just need to find a way to make it accessible for them.

I never said it would be easy, but assuming that our group CAN access the Bible has challenged us a lot. I remember one of the most engaging sets of teaching we did was based on the book of Judges. This term we are looking at some of the Names of Jesus. It was my turn this week and the theme was ‘Jesus is the Lamb of God’. Through three short talks and pictures to help show what I was talking about, we looked at the Old Testament temple sacrifices, especially the role of the sacrificial lamb. I wanted to explain the importance of the blood that had to flow so that the people’s sins could be covered, to make atonement (payment) for them.

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I wrote a little puppet drama, which everyone got involved in, where the puppet was accused of various sins and found guilty (by the members who were all part of the jury!) The puppet was sentenced to death. Everyone gasped! It was a brilliant moment as I knew then that they had engaged really well with what was happening. Suddenly Bob, one of our leaders ran up and offered to take the punishment for the puppet, because he was his father and he loved him. It was a special moment as so many of the group gasped again! Bob was led away and the puppet set free.

My final short talk was about how Jesus did this for us because we are loved so much by him.  The aim of the teaching was to help people understand how Jesus needed to die to pay for our sins and that God had shown us a picture of this in the temple sacrifices.  The Jews would understand Jesus as the Lamb of God in the light of this, and hopefully our group have a better understanding of this too.

This term we have looked at how Jesus is ‘The Son of God’, ‘The Bread of Life’, ‘The Light of the World’ and ‘The Good Shepherd’. Hopefully, as with our other series, I will collect the teaching materials together and make them available for others to use.

We are all learning from opening up the Bible and from the challenge of making it accessible to ADULTS with learning disabilities, all of whom are different, have different abilities and communication skills – but isn’t that true in all congregations?!

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If you pray, please pray for  Churches for All http://churchesforall.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/ENABLING-FLYER.pdf   as they are putting on four training days based on the Enabling Church conference they had back in June.  We are going along on Tuesday 28th Oct to do a presentation about our group and what we do.  Their plan is to put a pack of training materials together that can be used in all dioceses of the Church of England, and I’m sure other churches too.  I am really proud to be even a small part of this and am looking forward to learning from all the other contributors.  Please pray that it goes well, that people come along and fill the venue each day and that churches are transformed.  I’d love to see people who are just starting out on the journey of being more inclusive in their church there.  There’s a lot of help avaialable for those with willing hearts!

Panning for Gold and being honest with God.

 

Nothing, especially God, is simple.

SCBUIf someone was born with a disability; and if I believe psalm 139 about God creating us in the womb; then has God created the person with that disability or impairment?

Ummm…hard and uncomfortable question…

These past few days I have been encouraged and challenged to dare to ask God and myself the hard things I wonder about disability. The things I usually push to the back of my mind…fearful of not knowing…or not wanting to explore the deep places of God where I might find some answers and probably more questions.
It started with the Association of Christian Writers weekend at the gorgeous Scargill House in Yorkshire. Adrian and Bridet Plass along with Sheridan Voysey, encouraged and challenged us writers to ‘Pan for Gold’ in the story of our lives and of those we write about. Gold, you see, takes some patience to collect. It settles in miniscule flecks and after a lot of patient ‘panning’ to filter away the unnecessary and irrelevant.
The gold of our lives can be found when we look with patience and perseverance, carefully sifting and finding. As writers we looked at how we share our stories in memoir that can be meaningful to our audience. Sheridan Voysey shared his story and how he had brought it under a theme, of broken dreams and new beginnings. But honesty is very important. God can deal with our honesty because we bring it to him with all the repentance, confusion, emotional baggage and rawness that go with it. God loves us to come to Him as we are, not as we pretend to be.

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My life story is inextricably linked with people with a disability. I have supported and worked in care, education and churches for a long time. I realised that I have many questions I haven’t dared to ask. Many of them are linked with those “Whopper questions” that dare to ask God ‘WHY?’ They sneak about the back of my mind threatening to make themselves know while I politely push them back and tell them…Not now!

So, here were these questions about why people are born disabled, why do they face so many obstacles, why do they suffer… and then a huge cavernous hole with devouring monsters opens up in front of me, threatening to unleash the whole caboodle of tricky questions about life, suffering, death, blessing, growth and God! Thanks Adrian…I thought they had been well-sealed away.

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    And two days later I attend the Enabling Church conference of the Churches for All organisation in West Bromwich, near Birmingham. So many people, worshipping, listening, discussing and sharing together. There were signers and interpreters, Braille hymnbooks, subtitles, wheelchair users, blind, deaf, learning disabled, able-bodied and autistic people – all together with the purpose to find out how to make churches more inclusive.
And we didn’t dwell on the big questions, or did we?  Here are some of the things that made an impression on me…
Professor John Swinton started it off by saying
“There are many different ways of being a human being and encountering the world.”
He encouraged us to;
“Be a guest in the world of a person with a disability, learn from them and their lives, let them               serve and give to you.”
Haydon Spenceley, a PHD student who happens to be a wheelchair user said;
“People with disabilities have enough pain, suffering and injustice, without the church making it worse.”
Ann Memmott explained how an autistic person can be supported in church and that current research is showing maybe up to 1 in 30 people have autism. What are the statistics in your church?
Jonathan Edwards, (the Baptist Minister), challenged us to find out what the reality of the Welfare Reforms mean to people with disabilities in our congregations and communities. He said we should be speaking up for the vulnerable and speaking out for those who have no voice, or who can’t.
Finally I listened to Care for The Family’s additional needs team. They spoke about how we all long for acceptance AND for significance…therefore HOW can we identify and encourage people with learning disabilities and additional needs to develop and use their gifts in our church?

This post is not about providing answers. In fact the questions may not have any neat or simple idea or answer. I am exploring questions and challenges God has brought to me through these two experiences and praying about how they challenge us in our church. I have to ask myself –
Do I trust that God loves us, accepts us, helps us, blesses us, builds us, moulds us, disciplines us, is delighted with us and brings out the tiny flecks of gold in our lives through patient, careful ‘panning’ of the experiences, the pain, the suffering and the triumphs of our lives?

What about you, dare you ask some big questions?

Isn’t that panning for the gold?

From Noah to Jesus

This is our puppet stage for our Noah series – thanks to Bob and Amanda for their creative work!

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At the Good News Group we want to help our members understand that the whole Bible leads us to Jesus and this term we have been studying Noah. It being a short half term of 4 sessions the story of Noah just happens to take up 4 chapters of Genesis…so that was helpful – one chapter a week!

As usual we tell each part of the story in different ways so that the wide variety of people we have coming to our group can hopefully access the story on a level that is appropriate for them. Again, pictures, Makaton, sensory experiences and objects, repetition, simple and clear verbal language, puppets and drama have been used. Here are some pictures…

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We have been through the story and not shied away from the harsh facts of people’s SIN (ignoring God) caused God to want to destroy them. I think our group are getting used to the concept of SIN (and GRACE!) as we tell the gospel through all our teaching – not to make them feel dammed – but to explain that we cannot earn our approval from God…and that wonderful glorious gift of GRACE that came through Jesus.

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Just before Easter as our teaching on the Easter story came to a close we set up a way for our members to respond to the gospel. This is not easy when we don’t know what our members understand but we trust the Holy Spirit to do His work and want to give a clear opportunity for everyone to come forward and receive Jesus as their saviour.

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We use a set of dark and white cloths. The dark cloth represents our living in darkness when our SIN means we ignore and say ‘no’ to God. Each person is offered one of these (with added visual symbols to help them remember what it means) and then invited to come to the cross and exchange it for a white cloth which represents our SINS being forgiven and forgotten. We pray with our members in small groups or individually and always respect their choice of whether to respond or not. We tell them that a Christian is someone who has said ‘YES’ to God and believed in his son Jesus.

Like all analogies this isn’t perfect, perhaps a bit messy, but it is about empowering our members (and their carers) to make a decision about whether they want to be a Jesus follower or not. We cannot make that decision for them but are endevouring to present the Gospel in a way that they can understand and respond to if they wish.  (And many of them have…)

 

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