One in six people in the UK have a disability. Many disabled people claim the church has a poor accessibility record. How can we move things forward?
Judith, who is partially sighted and registered blind has gone to a large summer Christian festival with her church for the past two years. But now she’s had enough and doesn’t want to go back.
Before the event she asked for the information pack in large print, explaining to the organisers what font size she would need.
“I went to get my info pack to find it being hurriedly photocopied into black and white and then turned to A3. I still couldn't read it and now no one else could either because of the colour to black and white photocopying."
“I also spoke to a deaf man at the event who had told them he would need an interpreter. He arrived and there was no interpreter. He spent the whole weekend attempting to lip-read what was being said and later told me he understood very little of it.”
“He was angry. He had paid to come just like everyone else, and he had emailed ahead with his access requirement as instructed. If they could not have met it then he would have rather been told in advance so he could cancel and have his money back.”
Judith’s bad experience continued last year when her friend Debbie, who is a wheelchair user, was placed as far away from the main facilities as possible.
“Accessibility was an after thought,” Judith says.
Taking the initiative
Sadly, Judith’s experience is not unique. Chief executive of Torch Trust, a Christian organisation with a vision for people with sight loss, Gordon Temple believes the church has a poor record on accessibility.
“Nobody in church is intending to exclude people but inadvertently people with disabilities often find there’s a problem.”
Gordon believes a lot of the progress that has been made has been because of the government’s laws: Rarely have churches taken the initiative, rather they’ve been forced to have accessible toilets and ground level access, he explains.
Believing the church needs to change its attitude, Gordon has co-authored new book Enabling Church, which aims to help Christians look at what the Bible has to say about disability.
“When Jesus started his ministry in his home town he said: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for captive and recovery of sight for the blind.’”
“I’ve often thought that disabled people fit into most of those categories. They often have a much lower income and much less chance of employment, so they’re poor. They’re captive through mobility impairments or sight loss in their own homes so they’re captive."
“They often feel oppressed and get a raw deal in many circumstances and of course the people I work with are physically blind. So it’s a bit of an oddity that the church has underrepresentation of disabled people where everything points to saying it should demographically and missionally have an overrepresentation.”
‘Jesus spent a lot of time with disabled people’
Tim Wood from Through the Roof agrees. The charity exists to help disabled people to take their place in the Church and help the Church include disabled people.
“I’ve got a friend who is partially sighted but to look at him you wouldn’t tell he was blind...The church bought him a large print Bible so he can read from the lectern and actually everyone else said, ‘this is really good it helps me in my reading’. Often it wasn’t at the lectern and people had to hunt around for it because everyone else found it useful!”
“That’s a key point. Once you do stuff for disabled people, it blesses everyone else. It can only be positive.”
Tim believes the Paralympic Games will act as a “visual aid” for the Church.
“We’re going to see there that disabled people are equally valued as athletes. They’ll be able to exercise their God-given gifts and be welcomed into accessible facilities.”
“The church can look at that and say ‘hold on a minute, look at the extents they’ve gone to for a two week event!' We’ve got an eternal message we want to get out there and say to people that Jesus spent a lot of time with disabled people and he still is in the business of doing so.”
“So let's raise our game and be inspired by the Paralympics, make adjustments where we can and reach out to those in our community. With the benefit cuts and the way the government is restructuring things there’s less resources around but I think the Church is going to be there. It’s the vehicle that can provide that hope and blessing to disabled people when everyone else is shunning them.”
Torch Trust training
Alison & Janet teaching how to organise money
Both Tim and Gordon have many practical suggestions. They encourage all churches to make sure everyone can enter and move around church buildings. They also say churches should have a loop system installed and large print editions of Bibles and newsletters. Tim suggests thinking about making church websites accessible and ensuring disabled people are able to use their gifts. Gordon also says people shouldn’t be afraid to ask the same question that Jesus asked of Bartimaeus; ‘What can I do for you?’
Tim says: "I think people need to take a little bit of extra time to think: 'How do I relate to this person? What do they need? How can I move and enable them to be included?'"
Finally, Gordon offers a check list, but with two caveats: 1) Every disabled person is unique and will have different needs. 2) Be sure to refer back regularly and see what else you can do.
- Offering reserved parking or a drop-off point
- Having ‘step-free’ access giving level/ramped entry to a building
- Providing accessible toilets
- Having a loop system in operation and, when required, providing sign language interpreters and/or speech-to-text (captioning)
- Using straightforward, jargon-free language to meet all levels of ability
- Supplying written information (including that on a screen) in large print (font size 18 point) and other alternative formats (eg. audio, electronic, Braille)
- Making sure there are clear/pictorial signs for people with learning disabilities
- Having a quiet space available during the main meeting for those who may need time-out (for people on the autistic spectrum)
- Having good, even, glare and flicker-free lighting to benefit people with sight loss or autism
- Offering seating (some with arms) near the entrance/exit
- Providing a named contact to ‘champion’ issues and initiate training on disability
- Speaking directly to disabled people, assuming nothing and asking them how they are best supported and included
- Providing commentary/audio description for purely visual content to those unable to see the screen/stage
- Making the website accessible and including information that helps disabled people access the building and activities
- Adopting a can-do culture with an inclusive ethos, valuing all and addressing each person’s needs on an individual basis
- Intentionally encouraging and enabling disabled people to contribute to church life using their God given gifts.
June 25th, 2012 - Posted & Written by Sam Hailes