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Beyond the ramp – 10 ways to build accessible churches where everyone has something to give

October 2 2017

Naomi Graham heads up the accessible church work of New Wine. She outlines ten areas to consider that would make group activities such as church services more accessible to those with additional needs.  From attitude and culture, to sensory processing and inventiveness, this article suggests ways to celebrate uniqueness so that everyone feels like they belong and has something to give.

 Christians believe it’s important to welcome others as Christ has welcomed us, including those who we don’t easily understand.

Attitude so easily shapes our actions: we live in a culture in which ‘me first’ seems to dominate. How would our churches and communities be different if our attitude reflected Jesus’ command to ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’ (Mark 12:31)? The attitude we have towards our neighbour, to the people we encounter both inside and outside our churches, shapes the way we build community. We can choose to base our attitude on knowing God has made each of us in his image, and loves us as his children.

Culture in which we are open, welcoming and inclusive can be formed as our attitudes are refined by the principles of love and grace taught by Jesus. We create a space where we make the effort to say hello. A community where we ask how others are doing or invite them for a coffee or a meal. A culture in which difference is inconsequential, and uniqueness is celebrated in a way which enables everyone to feel like they belong.

Community is like belonging to a family. Being able to bring your best and your worst, to be honest when you’re having a bad day, and to negotiate when things aren’t going to plan. In the book of Acts in the New Testament it talks about a community of believers who shared everything. What do we share? Do we share our time in conversation with people who are hard to talk to? Do we share our home with the person on their own? Do we share our engineering skills to enable someone physical access? Do we share our administration skills to organise extra care for somebody? Do we lend an ear when people just need someone to listen?

Environments that are easy to access are important. Everyone has different preferences that make a space feel like ‘home’. This starts with basic things: enabling someone to get in and out (by building ramps or lifts); enabling someone to communicate (by adding hearing loops or using sign language interpretation); enabling someone to see what is going on (by using large print words or printouts of key slides); enabling someone to understand (by using visual aids, pictures to support words or giving opportunity for questions). But the creation of ‘home’ usually goes beyond the basic.

Support is essential to the accessibility of church and other community activities. Support for families, carers and friends is as important as support for individuals with additional needs. Providing opportunity for parents and carers to be listened to, to be themselves, and not just ‘Tommy’s mum’ or ‘Rosie’s sister’, is invaluable. Gathering volunteers who can check-in with families and provide practical support is helpful. Supporting an individual with additional needs can give a necessary chance for a family member to participate themselves.

Sensory processing enables every individual to take in, sort and respond to messages they receive to their brain. We process sight, sound, smell, taste, touch, movement and our body position. Everyone has different preferences that impact on the way they do things. Some people may seek out a lot of movement and go for a run each morning before they go to work. Some people may be sensitive to sound and sleep with ear plugs. These preferences have an impact upon the way we engage in communal activities such as church. An individual with autism may have some sensitivities to touch and sound; they may benefit from using ear defenders so it’s not too noisy, and from having a space where people won’t bump into them. Some individuals may need the opportunity to move around or sit on a gym ball while they’re listening.

Inventiveness is an essential part of making social gatherings and church accessible. We can use our God-given creativity to shape the way we do things. Some individuals may need lots of breaks and short components to a service. Others may like to have an object to hold that enables them to tangibly engage with talking from the front. Practical responses such as blowing bubbles, creating a handprint or lighting a candle may enable more individuals to engage while others are doing something else.

Before and after an individual with additional needs walks through the door, changes need to happen. Accessibility starts with making changes that enable everyone to access activities or services from the moment they arrive. If we are creating a culture in which everyone is welcome, we need to be proactive not reactive. We can do this by using some of the ideas above and through small steps such as letting families know on your website that your church or group welcomes everyone.

Language and communication are essential for understanding. The more clues we can give as to what we are communicating the easier it is to understand. It is generally much easier for you to follow something being read from the front if you’re reading the text at the same time. For some it may be helpful to have pictures, signs, gestures and props that support what is being said. Part of being welcoming can involve taking time to have conversations with individuals who may be more difficult to communicate with, and being honest if you don’t understand.

Everyone has a part to play. I have had the honour of meeting incredible individuals who in the world’s eyes have nothing to offer and need significant amounts of support to manage everyday life, yet have the most amazing connection with Jesus and reflect God’s presence in a way that is rare.  As the Bible says, ‘those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable’ (1 Corinthians 12:22). As a community, we should learn to recognise and celebrate the part that everyone plays in God’s kingdom.

Naomi Graham oversees New Wine’s Accessible Church Ministry, seeking to enable those with additional needs to participate as much as possible within each New Wine event and their local church.

Visit http://www.new-wine.org to find out more about their work and an Accessible Church Training Day in March 2018

This material is copyright New Wine Magazine and is used with permission.

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