In their forthcoming book At the Gates, Naomi Lawson Jacobs and Emily Richards heard from many disabled Christians about their experiences of church. Here Emily explains the key things churches could consider to help them become places where disabled people thrive.
Think beyond the building
“I think the summary for me is most churches now are reasonably good at basic access, but that’s [all] they consider. Can you get into the building? Rather than, can you serve in all capacities in the church as a full member?” Isabelle
Obviously, conversations around disabled people and the church begin with access but that access can look different for many people. Consider all the ways people are seeking to participate in your service, from the deaf congregant wanting to hear the sermon to the neurodivergent child seeking to participate in youth activities. So often when churches think about access, their thinking is limited to ramps and hearing loops. These practical adjustments to buildings are vital but simply the first step in creating a culture of hospitality and justice where, once inside the church gates, disabled people can fully participate in the life of the congregation. As Fiona MacMillan of St-Martin-in-the-Fields Church reminds us, access is about “getting in and joining in”.
Begin honest conversations centring lived experience
“Don’t assume anything. Don’t look at somebody and think that you know something about them because of their disability… everybody is different. So, ask. Have a conversation about it.” Nicki
In all considerations of accessibility and participation, it is important to centre the voices and experiences of disabled people and those living with chronic illness. This will mean making space to listen to people. Churches’ emphasis on inclusion in recent years has sometimes led to an “inside-out” model, with those at the centre welcoming those at the edge to join in. But this ignores the life is already flourishing on the edge of churches. Our conversations in the book unearthed a wealth of resources that disabled Christians are generating, as we support each other in Facebook groups and Twitter threads for example. By simply listening to the experiences and wisdom of disabled members of your church, we can make room for similar moments of transformation and growth.
Our storytellers noted that often people are wary of starting a conversation around disability for fear of “saying the wrong thing” or causing offence, but silence often only reinforces stigma. As always, if you want to start disability-positive conversations in your church, make sure you are listening to disabled people. Invite disabled guest preachers. Feature new speakers in your church magazine or blog. Invite disabled members to start a Bible study or book group.
Ask the experts
“Many, many books are written about disabled people and the Church, but our own voices are not heard.” Jemma
Disabled people are experts in our own needs and conditions but, as our storytellers shared, people often place assumptions onto people and treat them through the lens of age-old stereotypes; as people who need care, charity and, according to many of our storytellers experience, prayer to be made “normal”. “But our interviewees had a wealth of expertise to offer from their lived experience. They identified ableism in liturgy and theology, offered unique service in their churches, and shared new understandings of healing and cure. Disabled people’s leadership has the potential to transform inaccessiblility and ableism in church cultures.
To centre the voices of disabled people in your congregation, it is vital that you include us in your decision making. Are there disabled people on your leadership team or parish council? Consider appointing a “disability advisor” or approaching a disabled expert to conduct an access audit for your church building(s). Often disabled people can see barriers that others are not aware of. Their lived experience can be a valuable resource in making your church more accessible
In everything, centre justice and hospitality
Finally, we know that creating accessible church cultures can sometimes feel overwhelming. This may be the reason some churches find it so hard to begin these conversations. We may be working with old buildings, limited resources and usually relying on the goodwill of volunteers. We know that these changes to church culture won’t happen overnight - nor are we expecting them to. But often all that’s needed is an attitude of inquiry, creativity and a openness to being changed. A church’s first attitude of radical hospitality , centred on a commitment to justice and listening to people’s experience, will ripple outwards into practical change if we are willing to be transformed by welcoming each other, just as we are.