Author of new book Living Well With God, Jo Acharya explains why we all benefit from supporting those with additional needs.
Andrew loves to talk about trains. He struggles with social cues but can recite a dozen Bible verses from memory. Mary wishes she was "normal". She can’t read or write but prays sensitively for people in need and cares deeply about her friends. Laura has no speech and needs support with everyday tasks. She has a lively sense of humour and her smile lights up the room. Andrew, Mary and Laura are adults with additional needs, with unique challenges and unique gifts.
It was 18 years ago that I started a new job supporting adults with additional needs. At first I didn’t know how to "be" with them. I worried that I might accidentally patronise or offend somebody. I felt awkward trying to communicate with those whose speech was limited or hard to understand. But as I got to know the individuals I was working with, I quickly became more comfortable. Some had a blunt honesty I found refreshing. Others had a wonderful lack of self-consciousness that made me relax too. Working with people with additional needs gave me freedom to be creative and try new things, to take myself less seriously, to be more fully myself.
Often, accommodations designed to meet the needs of a particular group end up benefitting the whole community.
There are many people with learning disabilities and autism in our churches, and including them fully is an important part of living out our faith. Lots of us are already making services more accessible by offering a quiet room for people with sensory challenges, providing information in simple language or welcoming people of all abilities in volunteer roles. Often, accommodations designed to meet the needs of a particular group end up benefitting the whole community.
As well as practical provisions though, all Christians need support to develop in their faith. Some of us may underestimate the ability of people with learning disabilities to grow spiritually, but in fact there are discipleship groups in churches all over the UK where people like Andrew, Mary and Laura worship, pray and learn about Jesus together.
Read more on neurodivergence
Discipling Christians with additional needs is challenging without appropriate teaching resources, and unfortunately there are very few available. Those of us who have a heart for this work are doing what we can to help meet this need. I offer free easy read resources on my website, and my new easy read book Living Well With God is a collection of short Bible devotionals in very simple language. The charity Count Everyone In also produces easy read devotionals and provides training, and Through the Roof advises churches on accessibility and inclusion. North of the border, Prospects Across Scotland provide support and resources for church groups and individuals with additional needs. For anyone seeking specific guidance, the Facebook group Additional Needs Alliance is a supportive community with a wealth of experience, enthusiasm and ideas.
Jesus includes those who can’t understand complex theology, who depend on others’ care, and who are often overlooked and underestimated.
When we empower those with additional needs to explore and express their faith, we see God’s spirit working in them. In the church group I help to lead, I’ve been moved by the prayers of members with learning disabilities, surprised by their insightful questions and impressed by their eagerness to participate in the wider church, often building relationships with everyone from children to elders.
Jesus famously said that God’s kingdom belongs to people who are like little children (Luke 18:16). That includes those who can’t understand complex theology, who depend on others’ care, and who are often overlooked and underestimated. The fullness of God’s goodness and grace and the transforming power of the Holy Spirit is not just available to these people; it belongs to them. Our brothers and sisters with additional needs are a vital part of the body of Christ, and the whole church is blessed when they are fully involved.
Living Well With God by Jo Acharya will be published on 7th July 2023. Signed copies are available from valleyofsprings.com.