If each one of us is fearfully and wonderfully made, crafted in the image of God and equal in value, then all people should feel included in worship.
Unfortunately, this isn’t the experience of everyone with a disability. Feelings of inequality, invisibility, neglect or misrepresentation are common.
So how do we ensure that our church family are as welcoming as Christ and as inclusive as the gospel? How do we ensure that everyone in our congregation is able to express themselves in worship? Guest Blogger and Worship Leader Sue Rinaldi explores the accessibility question and finds out more about the ministries and resources who are there to help.
One in 40 have a learning disability
Every Church is likely to have contact with at least one or even a few people with learning disabilities. Almost 1 in 4 of us will experience sight loss for ourselves. It may be temporary, perhaps through an accident, or it may be due to an age-related disease. It’s something a lot of us will get to know from the inside.
The important point, here, is that discussing disabilities in church or in worship is clearly not about “them”. It’s about us.
Statistics as significant as these, together with innumerable stories of personal struggle from people with learning disabilities and their families who have found worship difficult, beg a cavalcade of questions.
If every church is likely to have contact with people with learning disabilities and if the family of God is intended to be the most welcoming place on planet earth, fully kitted-out in agape attire, then how disability-friendly is our worship?
Silence is not necessarily golden
We are often afraid of things we don’t understand. Jonathan Edwards observes:
We are fearful of people with learning disabilities as we don’t know the language and don’t know how to communicate.
Language continuously evolves – words become extinct, mutated or stigmatised beyond recognition. The terminology associated with all things disability is a perfect example of these shape-shifting times.
The fear of saying something insensitive, insulting or non-PC has conceivably silenced important conversations, hindering engagement and decelerating the pace of change.
Undoubtedly, one of the greatest areas of achievement over the last few years is the way organisations have confronted this awkward silence by means of education and stimulating compassionate and honest exchange.
Debunking the D word
Accessibility training by the UK’s Spring Harvest event, which has proven very practical and helpful to those genuinely disorientated within the disability phrase-maze, discourages the phrase “Disabled People” as an identifier. This training opts instead for “People with a Disability”. The training notes say, “We see many types of additional need and disability. Some are obvious but there are many more that are hidden or less obvious. There is no generic ‘disabled person’.”
A few definite no-nos are listed. For example, the words “handicapped, “cripple” and “invalid” should be eradicated; first names are favored over labels and we should drop the “suffering from”. The term “wheelchair user” is verified as accurate, and describing someone as having a “visual or hearing impairment” is acceptable.
The Church of St Inclusive
In his book Making Church Accessible To All (published by BRF), Tony Phelps-Jones comments on a major barrier to inclusivity. “Making our church buildings accessible is very important. It is vital that our premises and facilities work really well for everyone.”
He outlines essential amenities – access ramps, lifts, handrails, hearing loops, accessible toilets and seating design – but issues a wise caution: “We can have the most accessible building with every state of the art facility, but if the people of the church have attitudes and an approach that make disabled people feel uncomfortable or second class, the excellence of the building will not compensate for that.”
Negative attitudes will undermine the accessible message the building appears to give.
An even more momentous challenge awaits, however, and it’s a challenge for each and every one of us!
Playing our part
The whole church needs to respond to the clarion call of not assuming everyone can access content in the same way and at the same intellectual level. The challenge is to be considerate and flexible!
Paul Dicken, founder of UK charity Through The Roof, an organisation seeking to teach churches to include disabled people, adds “We need to see adults with learning difficulties as part of the Church and meet their needs by simplifying unnecessarily complex services and giving them a little more time and patience.”
Including adults with learning difficulties is a sacrifice – a sacrifice of our time, our practices and our approach. We need to see all people with disabilities including learning-disabled adults and children, as equal members of the Kingdom of God.
Participation is key
Corporate worship is one way of involving everyone and giving due attention to certain ‘meeting-matters’ will help maximize participation.
A simple change in vocabulary can speak volumes. Instead of saying “Everybody stand up” as a song of praise strikes up, amend it to, “Can I invite you to stand if you are able”. Similarly, instead of declaring we all raise our arms during a song, invite people to raise their arms if they are able.
Words are far from adequate to suit all permutations of every human circumstance, but considered changes go some way towards affirming the validity of everyone’s worship, irrespective of outward expressions.
Integrating drama and visual aids within the spoken message is also effective and has the potential to be highly participative, without the need to be complicated or expensive.
Installing a loop to help people whose hearing is augmented by hearing aids is fairly simple and inexpensive, and many churches have already done this or are mindful of this basic requirement.
There is also a reasonable amount of discussion concerning safe-levels of amplified sound, but interestingly, there is a growing conversation over ‘Hyperacusis’ or noise sensitivity. Those with diminishing tolerance to certain frequencies need to be taken more seriously and not just dismissed as ‘party-poopers’, too traditional or old!
“Font” of all wisdom
Another key area is how to include those with blindness and visual impairments. Song words projected over moving images or sermon points zooming onto the screen in a flashing display of wondrous angles before screeching to a psychedelic halt, just isn’t considerate enough!
Church services are often very visual, increasingly using song words, Bible passages or video clips on overhead screens, which can exclude people with sight loss unless provision is made.
Providing large-print songbooks and Bibles, ensuring on-screen colours tick the visual-impairment swatch box and choosing a playlist that contains accessible tunes and themes are only the beginning! Already, this may sound a big ask… but there is help!
Torch Trust’s Foursight offers training and advice for those wishing to be more inclusive of people with sight loss. Membership is free and grants access to online resources, helping you and your church make a difference for blind and partially sighted people.
Another initiative from Torch Trust is a free online automated transcription service called Worship For All, providing large-print and braille resources for people with sight loss. It can also prepare a braille-ready file for those with access to a braille printer, called an embosser.
The idea that consumer culture fosters individualism and selfishness and works in opposition to the idea of community is mooted in Enabling Church, a book by Gordon Temple, CEO of Torch Trust, and Lin Ball (Published by SPCK).
“There’s a danger of going too far in the pursuit of independence, with the perverse consequence that people with disabilities become all the more lonely and isolated”, says Temple. “The Bible affirms the dignity of all people and supports neither a strident heroic independency nor an abject, passive dependency – but gives us wholesome pictures of inter-dependency.”
Whilst brave-hearts speculate whether church incarnates more of a consumer culture than a gospel-pervading code of love and inter-connectedness, Temple echoes a worthy reminder. “Within the Kingdom of God, there’s a place of significance for every one of us.”
“People with learning disabilities” enthuses Jonathan Edwards, “are prized of God. They are valuable, they are important, they have their own gifts, they have their own abilities and they have their own limitations, and we must respond appropriately and sensitively.” He goes on to say:
Jesus proclaimed a gospel that’s inclusive. The party invitation is an open one.
What a privilege and a responsibility to be Christ’s hands and feet, hubs of compassion, bridge-builders into fractured communities, celebrators of diversity and conveyors of good news… to all!
(Originally published in the CCLI UK web site as “Access All Areas?” See the original post for valuable resources, events and links.)