You have the ramps and the signs, but what about the welcome?

by
02 November 2006

DIZCROSS

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 "reasonable adjustments".

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 condition.

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 health.

"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 self-confidence.

• 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 prayer for.

• 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 centre.

• 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.

Subscribe now to get full access

To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read seven articles each month for free.