I have written this for our Circuit Daily Devotions, a subject very dear to my heart. If you would rather here the spoken version, you can find that here.
A good stuff has been shared with us in our Circuit in the last few weeks about Equality and Diversity and what that means for us in the church. It has been really good to have some theological underpinning for that, and much of it has been really powerful.
As part of the exploration I wanted to look about look at disability and accessibility. As churches begin to re-open, or think about it, these are important questions to ask. We have an opportunity to get it right (or better!) as we have to make some changes anyway.
“The Equality Act 2010 (using a definition from previous Disability Discrimination Acts from 1995 and 2006) defines a person with disability as someone who has a physical or mental impairment which is substantial and has a long-term adverse effect on his or her ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities. Whilst this is the legal definition which offers additional legal protections to people with disabilities, it should be remembered that anyone may be temporarily disabled (for example when recovering from a serious illness or accident), which may also require them to need additional support or adjustment. Many people with disabilities consider that their impairments are not the key factor that disables them. Instead they are disabled by a built environment that is not planned with their needs in mind, or they are disabled by the attitudes of other people towards them.”The Methodist Church EDI Toolkit Module 4.
That maybe comes more alive in personal story, so I am going to tell you mine, and share some of the problems that I have in in church. That’s not saying that my problems are unique or that they’re all the problems that are possible, I’m just using my example to give an idea of some of the problems that people can face. The problem with a lot of the disability’s is that the disabilities are not necessarily visible, and you wouldn’t know that someone was dealing with them or you had to help them with them. I hope the questions I raise might give you some thoughts about the accessibility of your church building.
In Mark 2, we hear the story of the men who brought their friend who couldn’t walk to Jesus. There was such a big crowd that they couldn’t get him to the door, so they carried him up the steps to the roof and made a hole in the roof so that they could lower him down to meet Jesus. Everyone focuses on the miracle of the man walking and the big question about Jesus authority, but we overlook the man’s friends and what they were willing to do so the man could get to meet Jesus.
For those of you that don’t know me, I use two crutches to walk, mainly for stability. I suffer with a chronic inflammatory illness that effects most parts of my body. It causes dryness – pretty much everywhere there should be lubrication in a body, I have little or none. That effects way more than you might think.
None of what I’m going to say are criticisms, they are questions, pointers to make us think about our church buildings. I’m also acutely aware that my accessibility may mean someone else’s inaccessibility – something that is there to help me may be making someone else’s needs impossible to meet – and for that reason the conversation needs to go on.
The first question I asked when we moved to our new Circuit was, “which church has the comfiest seats?”! That might seem trivial, but to me it is vital, and without which physical church in a building would not be possible. But actually, when you have a disability, churchmanship, style of worship and a lot of other things go out of the door, compared with issues of accessibility in its widest sense.
- But let’s go back to getting in the building. I am incredibly grateful to have a Blue Badge, but that is no help to me if there is nowhere near enough the building to park, or someone without a Blue Badge is parked in it.
- Next there is getting up the path, hoping that there are no steps. Is there a drop kerb where necessary – and nothing obstructing it?
- What about the entrance into the building? Is it level? You would be amazed how big an obstacle a raised door frame (there must be a technical term for that!) is when you are are wobbly, in a wheelchair, with a pushchair, or just have your hands full. Is the door too heavy? Can someone open it by themselves? Is there someone there to open it for anyone who needs it (remembering it might not be obvious who needs that help)
- Can I find an appropriate seat? I really need to sit with my right leg in the aisle, preferably with a large space between rows. Pews are quite simply an impossibility. Would someone let me have the seat I need, or would I be “taking my seat”? Can I sit at the back, or the front, if that is necessary for my disability? Is the seat comfortable? Can I shuffle and change my position in it to move the pressure points? Is there a way I can raise my legs if I need to? How long I personally can sit comfortably is very limited (and yes, it’s less than an hour!)
- A lot of people with disabilities are very energy limited, and cannot arrive at church half an hour early to get the seat that they need, they may need to arrive at the last minute and need to be able to have the right space.
- What is the lighting like? Is it too bright – or not bright enough…! Everybody’s needs are different. Is there perhaps the possibility for some individually controlled lights?
- That also applies to screens. Are they in the right place? Are they legible? Are they too bright, too dark or using the correct colour contrast? (Different colour contrasts work better or worse for different people, so it can be tricky) I actually have my own individual screen at our church, so I can set it to the setting I need. Is that a possibility in your church?
- Likewise, if you use videos in worship, can they been seen and heard by all? Is there some way their point can be explained. I love a video in worship, but can rarely process them in that space.
- Are there paper copies of words? Preferable in large and appropriately line spaced text?
- Can someone manage to carry, or hold during the service, anything that you are asking them to. Normal hymn books are really hard to hold and turn pages if your fingers or wrists are not good.
- In break-out groups, can everyone understand what you want them to do? Is everyone able to participate? Can everyone hear, process and respond in that environment? Can there be an alternative option?
- How do we use language? Do we invite everyone to “stand to sing” for example? When not everyone can stand – or sing. Do we use phrases like “everyone can do this” – can they?
- Is our service very singing focused? My illness means that I can’t sing. I appreciate what a great tool in worship singing is and one I always used a lot, but if someone can’t sing are they excluded from worship in a big way? I guess post-lockdown we are all going to have to think about that!
- Do we speak at a speed that people can hear and process? It takes me a long time to hear what you have said, process in my mind what you have said, and then respond. That applies even to things like the Lord’s Prayer, which I have to dredge from my mind and process through my brain before I can say it – slower than most. I am usually a couple of lines behind and give up. I stand no chance of remembering a response to a phrase in a prayer that you might ask me to share in, or what the lead in is that I am meant to respond to. I’m fine with that, but please don’t be offended – and be aware!
- How does celebrating communion together work? Is there a way to be a part of the body if you can’t kneel at the rail with everyone else, or even stand? Have we found a practical way around that?
- And after the service? I love to share fellowship, to hear how people are and what is happening in their life, but it is incredibly hard to have that conversation in a noisy room where everyone else is eagerly doing the same. Is there a quieter space where anyone who needs that can go and talk without the aural distraction?
As I said, that’s my experience, others will each have their own story.
No church can meet all these needs, But it is good Christian living to be aware of other’s needs and do what we can to make church buildings and services as accessible as possible. Have we at least thought that they may be needs, and ways we could work around them? What is most important is to ask people what works best for them, and be willing to do all you can towards that.
I am very happy to share advice or experience. Better still ask anyone you know has needs how to make worship more accessible what would help them – don’t assume. But also, don’t forget those who won’t say. Try and think if what might be excluding somebody and try and think of an adaptation before they have to ask. Try not to assume what someone needs…
And for those who can’t access physical church at all, I have some thoughts coming in a couple of weeks…
We thank you Lord
for the uniqueness we each bring,
gifts and challenges that we all have.
Thank you that all are welcome,
to your love,
to your place of worship,
to be in your presence.
Help us to be aware
that our normal
may be restricting someone else,
or keeping them away.
Help us to be bold
to ask for help,
to share our needs
And help us all to listen carefully
to what the needs of someone else are
and seek to help.
God of love and acceptance
help us to meet together
in worship of you,
that we may learn
more of one another’s story
and through that
learn more of you.
Let Us Build a Church Where Love can Dwell