Breaking down more than physical barriers

After awarding our first ever Disabled Friendly Church Award to All Saints Hough Green and St Ambrose Widnes, Ruth Reed talks to us about widening our perception of disability and breaking down more than physical barriers.

Can you tell us about the thinking behind the award?

It is based on the belief that we are all made in God’s image. 20% of the UK’s population admit to having some form of disability. Many of these are Christians seeking to live out their lives with the challenges presented by their disability. This award, modelled on the Child Friendly Church Award, is about including everybody. It is about showing understanding and communicating well so that people with additional needs – and their carers - can come into any one of our churches without any anxiety. Working towards this award can have an impact on the whole life of the church.

How will the award work?

Churches will be supported by a disability advisor who will guide them through the process, have regular meetings, provide advice and training and put them in contact with key people, such as building advisors or agencies. They can also offer disability awareness evenings for the PCC and congregations.

Can you give us some examples of actions that churches could take as part of the award?

It could be something as simple as adding an extra section to service booking forms to capture the details of any provision required – do you need to book a signer, does someone need to be able to see the reader’s lips? Do we need some form of pictorial representation of what is going on for non-readers? Can we configure our seating so that someone in a wheelchair can sit with their family unit rather than to the side or in the aisle?

It could mean putting up a poster, advising people to see a nominated person if they require a celiac wafer. It could mean simple adjustments to flooring to allow everyone to receive communion at the same time.  

Addressing attitudes to disability is also key. It is about recognising appropriate responses. Not assuming that if you don’t have a lift, that it is appropriate to carry someone up the stairs.

The award also asks churches to review how they share information about their accessibility. We are encouraging all churches, regardless of whether they intend to try for the award, to update their ‘A Church Near You’ page with detailed information on what disabled people and their carers need to know.

We are also encouraging churches to have an access statement on their website stating where access is and isn’t possible – following the model of the National Trust and in line with the equalities act. A positive and honest statement is less likely to cause offence than sharing no information at all or having inappropriate responses when people are put on the spot.

What is the wider impact of the award?

We know that the number of people caring for a relative or friend continues to rise. There are almost seven million carers in the UK – that is one in ten people. Our churches can also play a role in allowing carers time to relax so that they don’t feel like they are on duty all of the time. 

At the moment even our fresh expressions still have a ‘standard’ practice – everyone sits down and listens for a time. The award can help churches become even more accepting of wider behaviour and in turn support everyone spiritually. So how do we respond if we have an autistic child or adult in that congregation?  Are we allowing the person with autism to get up and walk around without objection?

The award can also encourage churches to develop links with assisted living communities, local disability groups or participate in mental health and wellbeing initiatives. 

Ultimately, the award goes hand in hand with growth. The more people we invite in, the more chance that we will encounter people with a disability. We don’t want to have any barriers up – social or physical. We also need more leaders. We are training future leaders, readers and clergy who have disabilities and we need to prepare our churches now.

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Ruth Reed - Vulnerable Adults Adviser and Disability Officer: 

0151 705 2124