Despite the prevalence of learning disabilities, it’s rare for people with learning disabilities to be factored into mission thinking. The idea of inclusive outreach can be daunting, and we worry that we’ll say the wrong thing and offend someone, or that any changes we make to become more accessible will be off-putting for others.
Sadly, these concerns can stop us from creating a welcoming space for all abilities even though it’s not actually that hard to achieve. In fact, there are lots of simple, fellowship-friendly things that any church can do to make their events and services great places to be for people with learning disabilities.
Prepare your team
Probably the single most significant thing you can do to boost inclusion is to prepare your welcome team well. That doesn’t mean running complicated ‘disability awareness training’, it just means thinking ahead about what would make somebody with a learning disability feel comfortable, so you know what to do when they show up.
It’s helpful to recruit welcomers who have experience of life with additional needs, and most obviously that means inviting people with learning disabilities onto the team. But teachers, carers and family members of people with learning disabilities are also likely to have good general awareness.
Choose one or two named individuals to be responsible for making contact with visitors who have a learning disability as they arrive. Even better, consider offering a buddy system – somebody who can sit alongside and talk through what’s happening during an event or service.
When a person with a learning disability visits your church, be sure to address your conversation to them, even if they come with a carer. Their carer might respond on their behalf, but keep your attention on the disabled person. Also, be patient in waiting for a response. It might take some time for the person you’re talking with to formulate their thoughts, so try to be relaxed about giving them some space.
Engage your senses
Many people with learning disabilities have limited short-term auditory memory, making it hard to remember more than a sentence or two at a time. One way to help with this is to engage the other senses. This could be as simple as leaving some easy-read or picture Bibles dotted around in the pews, so that visitors can experience passages through images. Alternatively, think about doing your usual activities in a multi-sensory way — for example pouring communion wine and breaking bread close to the microphone so that the congregation can hear as well as see the gifts being prepared.
You may be lucky enough to have somebody in your church who knows Makaton (similar to British Sign Language, but specifically created for people with learning disabilities). Teaching your congregation to do some Makaton signing along to worship songs is a great way to help people with learning disabilities feel at home. It also generally goes down well with adults who don’t like ‘action songs’, as signing doesn’t make them feel quite so self-conscious.
Challenge your assumptions
Learning disabilities come in different forms, and just because someone struggles with an aspect of everyday life doesn’t mean they’re not highly competent in other areas. One church leader tells the story of a man who arrived at her inclusive service without any spoken language and who struggled to cope with large numbers of people or loud noises. However, none of this had prevented him from successfully researching his PhD.
Many people with learning disabilities are in employment, and have skills that make them great volunteers on church teams. Their presence in visible roles will also send a fantastic message to other people with learning disabilities, that you value them and the contribution they can bring.
Count your blessings
If you’re serious about becoming more inclusive, then people with learning disabilities will find you. As they discover the love of Christ and become part of your community, they will change your church for the better. For a start, your church is likely to gain members who have a real understanding of what it means to be dependent. And as we answer God’s call to be radically dependent on him, there is great blessing in having people in our fellowship who have experienced this in a profound way.
You will also find that people with learning disabilities tend to have less regard for things in life that really don’t matter. We’re all so used to the social pressure to appear as though our lives are always under control, we don’t realise how exhausting it is until we get the chance to take the mask off.
People with learning disabilities generally aren’t interested in what job you do, or how much money you have, or any of the thousand ways we create unspoken social hierarchies. They’ll usually just be interested in you, and enjoying your company, and it’s hard to overstate how precious and healing that can be.
As you make changes to create a more accessible church, at some point you’ll get it wrong — but it’s much better to make a mistake than never to try. What matters is having an open heart and a willingness to listen. And if you feel you messed up then just say you’re sorry and ask how you might do better next time.
Working towards inclusion is about trying different things to see what works. Not everything does, but the fact you’re willing to put in the effort will speak volumes to the 1.5 million people in the UK with learning disabilities, and the people who love them.
Resources to help you reach out
Wave stands for We’re All Valued Equally. It’s a group in North London that uses its experience from starting and running inclusive groups and church services to help others create environments where people of all abilities enjoy mixing. Watch out for their forthcoming ‘Wave in a Box’ resource, with advice and resources for running inclusive events: www.wave-for-change.org.uk
Becky Makaton Tutor runs Makaton training, and her YouTube channel has lots of easy-to-copy videos of her signing along to popular worship songs: beckymakatontutor.co.uk
Count Everyone In is a Christian organisation dedicated to reaching the UK’s 1.5 million adults with learning disabilities with the love of Jesus. They provide training and have great resources to help churches offer a warm accessible welcome. Check out their Makaton-signed videos of the Psalms: www.counteveryonein.org.uk
*In order to write this article, Kay Carter spoke to Bernice Hardie and Celia Webster from Wave for Change, which exists to support churches and community groups to become more inclusive www.wave-for-change.org.uk