This blog post is simply me digesting what I took in from listening to Michael Bird's three part talk on disability (available here). It is not me speaking from experience, but simply dreaming about what might be possible.
Firstly, here are the big points that struck me from his talk.
Bird works from the central principle of 'imago dei'. All people are made in the image of God, regardless of their physical, mental capacity, although admittedly fallen (sinful). And all followers of Jesus are open to the transformative power of the risen Jesus, in that they are slowly being made more like Christ - all disciples are being made more and more into the perfect imago dei. Then it naturally follows that ALL people have a journey of sanctification to travel on. The Church has a crucial role in helping ALL people, regardless of ability, to recognize their own sinfulness, repent and be transformed by a closer walk with Jesus.
The key difference here is one of value. To be inclusive is to make allowances for people's differences. That is the bare minimum of what a disabled person should expect: that they feel included. A Church should go further and help ALL people to feel that they belong. To belong is to be valued. It is to know that without you, then the group does not function as it should. The church has to develop a belonging mentality for all people. So that when newcomers turn up, they sense that this is a group that will value their contribution, whatever it is, regardless of ability.
(Michael Bird said he stole this off John Swinton... Hurray for Aberdeen Uni!)
Now, from what I can see, here are some areas that it would be relatively easy to help people with needs feel more at home in our congregations
1) easy song words on screen. No background images. Clear points on screen during sermon (I don't do ppt, but I think I'm gonna start trying)
2) a dedicated area for people in wheelchairs or who need to sit during stand-up bits. An area that has a clear view to the screens.
3) double, triple check your hearing loops and acoustics. Are there areas in the church that hearing loops work better at. Can it be improved?
4) check that at least one smallgroup is in a disability friendly location (some homes aren't, with toilets upstairs or steps getting into the property) maybe even host a housegroup in your church for that reason. Even if you don't have someone yet who needs it, you at least have the option there.
And as I already said... This not from a place of simple inclusion. It's from recognising that unless we enable people with different abilities to join in too, then we are missing out from what they could contribute to the kingdom of God.
Now... Here are some bigger, more difficult-to-change areas that need to be thought about.
1) enabling people of all abilities to serve and contribute. So they are not merely the receivers of ministry and care, but that they are part of the church's mission in ministering and caring for others. This might mean identifying specific roles that those with needs you know of, can participate in. Handing out the bread and wine? Welcoming teams? Planning behind-the-scenes teams? It all depends on people's particular skills and abilities. But the important principle is not see them as receivers but givers also.
2) better equip church leaders and group organisers to have the practical skills and knowledge to be confident around those with learning difficulties and disabilities. This might mean external courses, or it might mean them spending time with people and their carers to just figure out what works best in other parts of their life, and what could be brought into their church experience too.
It was interesting to notice that John 9 resonated with Michael Bird on a personal note. As a father of someone on the autistic spectrum, he has felt the accusations of people saying that a child's difficult behaviours should be blamed on the parents. And so it's helpful for him to see this happening in John 9 too. The blind man's parents are wrongly labeled as responsible for the person's problem. [John 9:2] As preachers we can use scripture to bring comfort and guidance into lives of people with specific issues. (have I already blogged about John Hull believing that Psalm 139 is written by a blind man?)