At the beginning of December, Mencap published a poll which had found that 70% of parents of children with a learning disability have felt unwelcome in public. It made me wonder how well our churches do to reassure such families who might venture to join us on a Sunday that they are really welcome.
It also set me to remembering back 20-30 years, when we were a family with 4 little boys, one of whom had Down’s Syndrome – and I recalled my husband lodging a complaint with the duty manager of a National Trust* property in Kent, politely telling him that the attitude of one of his volunteers was “exactly what makes family outings difficult for families with children who have special needs”.
Our experience in churches has generally been better than that – so I hope we aren’t in a lucky minority there! When Gareth joined our family, in the 1980’s, we worshipped at St Mark’s Gillingham, where the church family embraced and supported us through the adoption process and afterwards – in just the same way they had with our other sons.
Brian’s selection for ordination training meant leaving St Mark’s, but his placement church in his first year at college had good children’s groups for our boys, and one of the church’s teenagers offered to be attend Gareth’s group with him, which meant he had the support needed to be part of the group for his age (6) – a year long act of service for which we were truly thankful.
Most churches don’t have someone to be such a special volunteer – so how do we make families with learning disabled children welcome? Generally in the same ways we make any visiting families welcome: which means lots of reassurance that they’re fine, and not being a problem. As a Lay Minister who sometimes welcomes visiting families to church now – I can see that parents still come to church now as sure as I was back then, that their kids are louder than they really are and must be disturbing the whole congregation. Sometimes of course – that is true – as it is with all children, but Jesus didn’t say “let the little children come to me if they are quiet” – and whilst it might sometimes be helpful to suggest a space to scream in, before coming back to join everyone, most churches have sound systems to amplify the ministers, and a relaxed parent is much more likely to come back a second time than one who feels the whole congregation disapproved of them or their child.
Half the parents interviewed in the Mencap poll thought public attitudes towards children with a learning disability are negative, and nearly half said they felt other parents were somewhat, or very, unhappy for their child to spend time with children with learning disabilities.
A church welcome is not just the responsibility of the minister leading the service – but something all the congregation can contribute to. Parents whose children go to special schools often don’t get the school gate relationships so may really appreciate friendships with other parents. Older members whose grandchildren are distant might enjoy sitting with families to accompany and reassure.
All age worship services are sometimes the loudest and most exuberant events we offer – but for some children with learning disabilities this can be scary. Cinemas and shopping malls are starting to offer quiet sessions with low lights. These are generally promoted as Autism aware events but can benefit a wider group that Autistic children – and as churches we can’t expect noisy and lively services to suit all children.
An article like this can only skim the surface of a big subject, but children grow into adults – and there are over a million adults with a learning disability in the UK. Like everyone else each of these is an individual and their needs and abilities are wide ranging, but I asked Gareth what he most likes about being part of a local church congregation he said:
“I like joining in with people, listening to God’s word, I like quiet songs, and listening to the prayers. We pray for countries that need peace. I like it when people take time to have a chat with me. I like helping- welcoming people and putting the Bibles out and taking the offering. I like being part of the community in the church and we have bread and wine to remember Jesus died on the cross.”
There are resources and websites which can help churches to think further about this, and I am excited that there are initial conversations happening about the planning of an LLM training module for ministry to people with learning disabilities. Watch this space!
* In fairness to the National Trust – I reckon their welcome of families has improved dramatically since then!
Additional Resources, mostly gathered by Susie Pinder:
Diocese of Liverpool http://www.liverpool.anglican.org/Learning-Disabilities
Prospectus Link http://www.prospects.org.uk/churches
Through the Roof http://www.throughtheroof.org/
Church of England Site https://www.churchofengland.org/media/39672/gs1725.pdf
Diocese of West Yorkshire and the Dales – http://www.westyorkshiredales.anglican.org/content/disability-and-inclusion
Material to help prepare candidates for Confirmation: confirmation-pack-for-people-with-ld-liverpool-2011
Pictorial communication aids: pictorial-education-communication & the-lords-prayer-confession-and-creed-in-pictures-for-ld
A brief guide to marriage preparation for ALDs: relationships-and-marriage-for-adults-with-ld-loverpool
Advice on Adapting material for ALD
A translation of the First Communion children’s book for children with a learning disability by Redemptorist Press.
(ADL: ‘Adults with Learning Difficulties/Disabilities’)