The 1995 Disability Discrimination Act might have helped parts of the
Church make its buildings more accessible, but does the Church know how to
attract and integrate people with disabilities and special needs? Julia
McGuinness goes in search of answers
Throughout choral evensong, the woman remained seated when other worshippers
stood. But as the National Anthem was played, a sidesman rushed forward and
jabbed her in the arm, brusquely ordering her to stand. The woman wept in
her pew as she explained how she was unable to get up.
The person who witnessed the incident from a neighbouring pew at one of the
Royal Peculiars (Features, 30 December), later tried to console the distressed
woman and her angered husband: "She said she’d found the service beautiful
before she was so rudely disturbed. I felt ashamed to belong to a worshipping
community that could be so insensitive."
Such insensitivity goes against the spirit of the law’s requirements for
recognition of the nation’s ten million disabled people. That figure comprises
17 per cent of the population, and includes many elderly people.
The Disability Discrimination Act 1995 (DDA) aims at ensuring that this
section of society enjoys the level of provision taken for granted by the rest.
And churches are among the organisations that must commit themselves to
tackling issues of accessibility and inclusion.
The Act has come into force by stages. In 1995, it became illegal to treat
disabled people differently. In 1999 came the requirement for service-providers
to make "reasonable adjustments" to meet disabled people’s needs, such as
providing induction loops for those with hearing-aids, or large-print versions
of hymns for those unable to use a standard hymn-book or projection screen. By
2004, churches became obliged to take reasonable steps (ramps, rather) to
overcome any physical barriers for disabled people, even where this meant
altering existing buildings.
Thanks to the 1995 law, according to Paul Dicken, director of Through the
Roof, a Christian disability charity, "the disability issue has finally come on
to the radar."
Churches have become more aware of the issue through all the publicity, and
are anxious to make the right provision. But, he says, their anxiety to comply
with the DDA can be compounded by the lack of precision about what it means by
Material adjustments to make a church environment accessible —parking
spaces, entrance ramps, and so on — are only half the story, however. Mr Dicken
believes churches miss the point if responding to legislation is their only
approach towards people with disabilities.
"People have to be reached, and they have to want to come in and be part of
a community. Disabled people’s willingness to become part of a church will be
affected by how they feel they will be received and treated." Unfortunately,
the scene witnessed at the Royal Peculiar is not an isolated case.
He cites several examples where churches treated people without dignity:
parents of a Down-syndrome child were told not to bring him to church because
"it disturbs our worship, and we can’t get close to God"; and a woman with
psoriasis was asked to sit at the back because people were upset by her skin
Mr Dicken also recalls a man with cerebral palsy forbidden to take communion
because he "slurped" from the chalice. "I said [to him] this was illegal,"
recalls Mr Dicken. "Soon I had his vicar on the phone, furious. I reminded him
that by refusing this man equal treatment, the vicar was indeed acting
illegally. But there was a simple solution: provide a bendy straw.
"The Church needs to take its eyes off the legislation and somehow grasp the
heart of God in this matter: to be a community that is inclusive of everyone.
Then maybe priorities will be easier to assess and implement. I’ve been told,
for example: ‘We don’t want to do a loop, because we have only two deaf people,
and we don’t think it’s worth it.’ What they are really saying is that these
two people are not important enough to hear the gospel."
Extending a welcome starts with the basic step of using the international
disability symbols on the church’s literature and at its entrance, to draw
attention to its provisions for accessibility. Mr Dicken says this starts to
convey the message of inclusivity to the wider community. Churches must then
examine themselves to see whether they have negative attitudes, including the
fearful pushing away of those with mental-health issues.
The Revd Donald Eadie is a Methodist minister who belongs to an ecumenical
support group of disabled clergy in Birmingham (story, overleaf). He enjoyed
robust health until his early 50s, when a degenerative spinal condition
impaired his mobility, leaving him unable to stand or sit for long. He feels
Christians need to translate their good will into asking simple questions such
as: "What would you find helpful here? Do you want to do this on your own?"
As he puts it: "It’s vital to ask rather than assume. A disabled person does
not always want someone else to do a task for them. That can feel as though
their life is being taken over."
Mr Dicken agrees: "Churches want to respond to disabled people’s needs, but
don’t know how to go about it. Communication is vital."
This is important in releasing disabled people to exercise their own gifts
and ministries. Churches can often be unaware of the rich potential for
receiving from the disabled people in their midst — a contribution that Mr
Eadie feels can be significant.
"We need to ask what a disabled person can contribute, and not make a
judgement about what someone else can and cannot manage. People might still be
able to read prayers, do a reading, or place bread and wine in people’s hands."
Mr Eadie recalls a nearly paralysed wheelchair-user in a church he attended.
Every so often the minister would arrange for him to be brought to the front
during communion. Though his movements were limited, he was still able to help
administer communion and put the sacrament into people’s hands.
Mr Dicken agrees. "People don’t consider that disabled people have gifts,
but there are many opportunities for service in the church. I know of a
Down-syndrome boy whose ministry is collecting the hymn-books at the end of the
service. It’s a real job that needs to be done, and [it’s] where he has an
opportunity to contribute."
Healing services are another important issue to consider. While it is
important to acknowledge that healing is possible, Mr Eadie is not alone in
finding healing services "oppressive", in what he describes as a church culture
of getting better. "Sometimes the miracle is not ‘getting better’, but becoming
able to manage your circumstances."
Mr Dicken says he is regularly contacted by those looking for a church where
they are "allowed to be disabled", and not urged to address assumed hidden sins
or deficiencies of faith that are blocking restoration to complete physical
"People don’t want to be constantly chased by those who think they know best
about another’s healing. We have a lot of supporters who have stopped attending
church altogether, because of the spiritual pressure. They maintain a
relationship with God somehow, but have very much withered on the vine."
The disabled who continue within their church community can find it hard to
voice their needs. Jill Blain, who worships in the Chester diocese, is one of
the two-and-a-half-million people who use hearing-aids. "I don’t feel left out
most of the time, but I’d like the low volume of our loop system to be sorted
out. It’s hard to speak up about this. I feel embarrassed about making a fuss,
as though I’m a moaner. Others in the congregation with hearing problems just
put up with things and say nothing."
Through the Roof wants all churches to have a champion for inclusiveness,
and communicate this willingness to respond to various needs by displaying its
"Churches for All" policy statement, which the charity can provide.
Clerics who are disabled in some way also hope to see change in the Church
and congregations. The Revd Jayne Adams is currently struggling with this.
"There needs to be a change in people’s thinking and attitude so that we see
the disabled as differently abled, as Jesus did. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus was
there for those at the side of the road."
During Ms Adams’s ministry training, a slipped disc cut through her spinal
cord, leaving her in a wheelchair. At first, this threatened her prospects of
priesthood, but she was ordained as an NSM in 1997. Her bishop not only
authorised an extra year for her to complete her academic work on the West
Midlands ordination course, but provided a mentor to give one-to-one support.
Since then, however, her delight at this early endorsement of her ministry
has given way to disappointment. She feels consigned to the pews: she is
offered up-front ministry only to fill in when others are away. "I don’t think
people mean to be hurtful. It’s just easier to overlook me than to take the
trouble to accommodate me, and accept that I need that bit longer to administer
communion. I saw the church as the one organisation that would not see my
disability as a barrier to service. Sadly, that has not proved to be the case."
Though denied access to a more prominent ministry, she senses that she
herself has become more personally accessible: "My brokenness is visible. Those
who let me in are also broken. They let me step into their brokenness, just as
Jesus did with people."
Like other Christian disability-related groups, Mr Dicken feels his central
task at Through the Roof is to change attitudes, which might take some time.
"We don’t tell churches what they are doing wrong, but emphasise that the heart
of God values each of his creation equally. I’m always quoting from the parable
of the great heavenly banquet in Luke’s Gospel, where marginalised people are
included and welcomed — indeed, actively sought out."
He is also keenly aware of the great commission that Jesus makes at the end
of Matthew’s Gospel, and regards the disabled as "the last unreached", who need
to be offered the inclusive love of Christ.
"Each person is important to God, and each individual needs to matter to us,
too, whoever they are. There is a good sea change taking place in the Church’s
response to disabled people, but there is still a long way to go."
How not to exclude
• Disabled people of every race and origin are the least evangelised
group in any society. The gospel message is as relevant to people who
experience disability as any other members of society. However, the
presentation must be sensitive to the life experience of those who are likely
to have been marginalised, ignored, or patronised, and have little
• Churches with a healing ministry need to be particularly sensitive.
The only person who needs to make a decision on whether to ask for healing
prayer is the individual and not other congregation members, however
well-intentioned. It is also wise to ask exactly what the individual wants
• If access to church buildings is difficult, consider what can be done
to meet people where they are. Activities could be held at sports and
recreation centres, disability organisations, resource centres, or a shopping
• Much of the material used in enquiry courses such as Alpha and Youth
Alpha is suitable for use with any group, including disabled people.
Specifically designed material for people with learning disabilities is
available from Causeway Prospects (www.prospects.org.uk) and Build (Baptist
Union Initiative on Learning Disability). The Roman Catholic Church has an
extensive range of literature for people with learning disabilities.
Ideas taken from You’re Welcome. This booklet also suggests
ways of making baptism, the eucharist, and other services accessible.