Trish Hahn is planning changes in her church after talking with her 19-year old daughter
According to (Family Resources Survey, 2021) there are 14.6 million disabled people in UK who need to know they can find support within a church environment and experience God’s love.
I had an interesting conversation recently about Sunday morning church services with my eldest daughter, who is 19 years old, has quadriplegic cerebral palsy and is non-verbal.
You might wonder how we conversed, given that she cannot physically speak. We did so via her communication device known as eye gaze. She uses her eyes to look at selected pictures and phrases which then converts those pictures and phrases into sentences thus giving her an electronic voice.
I asked her what she liked or didn’t like about the Sunday morning service, her answers blew me away.
Firstly, she said she didn’t feel particularly included within the service, and I have observed that on a Sunday morning no special effort is made to accommodate people with severe disabilities like Elin.
The worship, sermon and prayers are not accessible towards people with learning disabilities. Then again, we don’t really have many people with disabilities coming to our church service on a Sunday. Yes, we do have double front doors, a wide back door and wheelchair ramps so we do meet her practical needs but obviously not her spiritual needs.
She enjoys meeting people, is great at making people feel welcome and loves to smile at the people she knows well and is animated when people do talk to her and spend time with her before the service. There are a few people in our congregation who will stop beside her wheelchair and say hello to her but not everyone does.
Secondly, she felt that the service is geared mainly towards those people attending without additional needs, she wants more, needs more and quite frankly deserves more from our church services. As her home church we should provide the basic requirements to meet those needs and engage with her based on her communication abilities so that she can meet with and serve God in her own unique way.
I have asked if she would like me to use more Makaton signs and more relevant worship songs and to try to recreate more of a Special Educational Needs & Disabilities (SEND) Messy Church type of church. These ideas were met with a large smile and a resounding yes. I need to give feedback to her dad, our church vicar, and perhaps I need to be more involved in the planning of the service on a Sunday morning.
Elin and many others like her are differently abled. Not disabled, differently abled. If regular church services on a Sunday can make my daughter feel like she is not included, more excluded, I can guarantee that it is not just our church here in Clacton-on-Sea, Essex, that is not meeting the needs of those children and adults who are differently abled.
As the youth pastor of our church, I lead a monthly SEND Messy Church, and specifically try to engage with and meet the needs of our families whose children have an additional need or disability. This is my niche, my passion, to work alongside and serve the families who come to us to meet with God and learn about Him through our sensory crafts, sensory stories and sensory worship songs. Elin loves coming along to our SEND Messy Church, I can engage with her and meet her needs on a spiritual level because I have the flexibility to do so, to listen to the Holy Spirit speak to me when I am planning the crafts or the songs or the children’s talk.
Whether you are a parent, a youth worker or in church ministry at some point you may have felt excluded or isolated within your church service. Imagine how it must feel if you were differently abled, to have people talk over you, stand above you, talk to your carer but not directly to you, you might be given the impression that you are not worthy enough to be included within all aspects of church life.
Breaking down barriers
September 17th is Disability Awareness Sunday and as Christians, we need to be the ones to break down barriers, be they social or physical, we need to be willing to change our ideas and mindsets and welcome those with disabilities to meet with God, to learn about Jesus and to have the chance to hear about the gift of salvation that only Jesus can give to each of us.
We can learn from those people who are differently abled, they have much to teach us if we are willing to observe and listen. Jesus can transform each of us and use those around us to do so. We need to be willing to look past the disability to see the person in front of us, look beyond the wheelchair or the autistic behaviours, to see the person as Jesus sees them and to love them as He loves them.
In Luke 5:17-26 we read that Jesus healed a paralysed man, as his faith-filled friends overcame all hindrances placed before them, and overcame the final obstacle in their way opening up the roof of a small house likely made of mud and straw to lower the man down on his sleeping mat and present him to Jesus.
I imagine that the owner of this house was none too pleased to see the large hole appear in his roof. Who would pay for the repairs?
Yet, we see these friends, moved by the plight of their paralysed friend decided to overcome all the complications in their way to get close enough to Jesus to see Him respond to their faith and heal their friend.
I know what kind of friend I want to be for my differently abled daughter, what kind of friend will you be for the differently abled person in your church or community?