Disability, Accessibility and the Church

Earlier in the year (during lockdown when the hairdressers were shut, hence the state of my hair!!) I was invited to contribute to an event called Fearfully and Wonderfully Made facilitated by the Yorkshire Plus Learning Network. My part was pre-recorded in several small chunks.

This was an excellent informative and thought provoking event. It is worth listening to the whole event

If you particularly want to listen to just my part, this is it:

If we are looking for an inclusive church, we have to take these questions on board – and have to be ready to ask and respond to many more – because everyone is different and each and every one of us has different needs. Each of us is Fearfully and Wonderfully made and precious to God. The church physical is called to embody that love and joy that God had for each one.

If you find it easier, this is the text to what I said, though the final version was edited:

Until 2005 I led an active life.  Busy working as a Circuit Minister and for leisure always going somewhere and doing something, cycling, climbing hills, walking for miles and mostly talking for England.

Then my life changed.  There were already some hints that not all was right with my body, but then I caught proper full blown flu.  What followed that were breathing problems, the inability to speak for very long, which is why I am coming to you pre-recorded and edited, chronic exhaustion and a growing collection of symptoms that have escalated and worsened over the years.  Eventually I received a diagnosis of a rare chronic inflammatory condition called Sjogren’s Syndrome.  It effects my eyes, my skin, my joints, my swallowing and digestion, my balance and my lungs meaning I get recurrent chest infections – basically anywhere that should have lubrication in your body doesn’t – and that effects far more than you would think.  It has come more and more debilitating as time has gone on.  I am frustratingly limited in what I can do.

But in the thorny discussion of healing, I would say I am healed, because I find my healing in being able to cope with and still have a life and purpose within all those limitations.

I would say I am both disabled and have a disability.  My illness holds me back considerably, I can’t do even a small percentage of what I would want to.  But I am also disabled by places I can’t go because of how things happen there or difficulty getting to or using buildings when I’m there.

I had to retire on medical ground because I could no longer do the job – but I have found a new ministry in where I am now.

To be honest, in lockdown, I have been living my best life.

Zoom has made life so much easier and more accessible.  I’ve been able to go to meetings that I haven’t been able to for years, because with travelling time added on and the added exhaustion of sitting on chairs that aren’t comfortable etc.  Also re-enable me to ‘do ministry’ because the ability to pre-record, pause and edit has given me back a voice.

But as lockdown begins to ease and activities move back towards physical places rather than online, I share some of the obstacles I find in church life, in the hope they might start some conversations, or give you some pointers of the kind of questions you might want to ask someone to see if you can help make their physical experience of church better for them.

We have to make changes in our church buildings now – we have the opportunity to make things right – or at least better!

It is important to say that my problems are not unique or and they are not all the problems that are possible, I’m 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.  

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.

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 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, or it takes a very long time to get going in a morning and be up and out of the door, 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.  Perhaps my one biggest plea is to make sure your fancy graphics are actually readable.  I’ve seen so many slides and social media posts, from churches and The Connexion, in beautiful attractive colours that I cannot read the information on.  Just because it looks fancy and cool does not mean people can read it.

Are there paper copies of words?  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 – which is much 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 there may be needs, and ways we could work around them? Please don’t assume.  What is most important is to ask people what works best for them – and be willing to do all you can towards that.  But also, don’t forget those who won’t say anything, who don’t want to make a fuss.  Try and think what might be excluding somebody and ask what would help best.  Try not to assume what someone needs…

And it is important to remember, that as some joyfully go back to meeting in the church buildings, there will still be those who can’t access physical church at all.  How can we continue to meet their need and not re-exclude those who have found during lockdown that they have had access to so much?  But maybe that’s the subject of another webinar…

~ by pamjw on October 26, 2021.

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