Be courageous, be inclusive

Be courageous, be inclusive

Inclusiveness is not a formula you can transfer and, according to UnitingCare Disability chaplain Sue Scott, no church should ever feel confident they’ve got it right. talks to people in the Uniting Church to find out what helps, what hinders and how much it means to people when churches try.

When the Rev. Sue Scott talks about installing ramps, rails and loops her advocacy is sometimes met with confusion.

“People have said, ‘But we don’t have anyone with disabilities in our church.’

“I think that church should be saying, ‘Why not?’

“If you look at statistics and the percentage of people with a disability in our population, you realise that if these people aren’t present, we need to be wondering why.”

In 2009, four million Australians (just under one in five) reported having a disability (experiencing barriers due to a long-term condition) to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

Disabilities can be physical, intellectual or a pervasive mental illness, including people with autism spectrum disorders, Down syndrome, deafness and blindness.

Like the rest of society, many people with disabilities grow up in church families or have faith. But finding a church willing to welcome and accommodate them is more complicated than for most.

In the book of essays, The Paradox of Disability, Roy F. Baumeister argues that some disabilities limit a person’s ability to participate either because of difficulty entering places of social interaction or because of the negative attitudes they discover when they arrive.

Exclusion can also be self-imposed, he writes, to avoid becoming the object of pity or due to fear of rejection or embarrassment.

“Community attitudes are notoriously hard to change,” said Sue.

“But the church has the perfect opportunity to model an attitude alongside our services that are up-to-date with the latest models of care, which aim to provide opportunities for people with disabilities to be part of the community.

“It’s not about doing things for people; it’s about journeying with them. We use that term in the Uniting Church — let’s be true to it.”

Early intervention helped minimise the severity of Tim Miller’s autism after being diagnosed at 2. But there are still times when, due to speech patterns and mannerisms, Tim stands out.

His mother, Jan, has appreciated the effort toward inclusion made by churches like Forestville Uniting, where she is a family support worker. She remembers others prior to moving to New South Wales less favourably.

Once, an unsecured church building allowed Tim to escape and run toward a main road, where he was caught by a gardening neighbour. On another occasion she was told she was not to come back to a Bible study that offered childcare because her son was too much work.

“That really upset me because church was supposed to be about acceptance and they didn’t want to accommodate anything outside their set rules,” said Jan.

“Even if at the end of the day you can’t find a solution, the fact that you have really tried would speak volumes to a family.

“They might’ve said it was too hard at this stage — let’s try again in a few years. At least I wouldn’t have come away thinking how hypocritical that church seemed when it professed to accept and love everyone but then told me not to bring my child.”

Jan believes the biggest stumbling block holding back churches is ignorance, which creates fear. But the process of education need not be complicated.

Like the rest of society, many people with disabilities grow up in church families or have faith. But finding a church willing to welcome and accommodate them is more complicated than for most.

She said a simple initial step could be to invite the family to a meeting of church council, where key people can be educated about the disability and have a chance to ask questions.

If uncertain, Jan said families would usually welcome questions like: What might you be looking for for your child in a church setting? How would your child respond to this? What could this church offer your child or how could you see the church helping?

The aim, said Jan, would then be to create together activities the person could participate in to a small or large degree.

The times it has worked best, she feels, is when her minister has approached her about ways Tim might enjoy contributing; like when recently he carried the cross during a Stations of the Cross service.

“At my commissioning service I was just so intent on Tim being one of the people who lay hands on me,” said Jan. “He has a child-like faith: God is there and to be trusted. It’s rock solid. He teaches me stuff — he’s amazing. And he’s not the only one I’ve met who is that way.

“Being involved in some way appeals to Tim so if you can find a way for him to be involved then church is going to be a more rewarding experience for him.”

Finding another way

Jan also wants to find ways to translate the prayers Tim says at the dinner table to something the whole congregation can hear and learn from.

While people may not be able to understand his words, she feels a PowerPoint presentation made and illustrated by Tim could be a better way for him to communicate his faith.

In South Australia, Sue Scott has heard similar thinking in a congregation that had previously dismissed a mumbling church member’s prayers with niceties.

When the minister took the woman out for coffee and made time to slow down the conversation to her speed, they discovered very meaningful prayer points. From then on, when she prayed, the woman was in the pulpit with the minister who translated her words for the congregation.

Sue keeps in mind lessons like this when running an evening with the Access Bible study group.

The Bible study is run out of Burwood Uniting Church and is tuned to the needs of its members, many of whom have an intellectual disability.

Sue said, that while segregated groups are not always the best option, in this case it works well because of the long-term and deep friendship shared by those who attend.

“It is hard to go to church if you can’t read,” said Sue. “Sometimes our words make worship less accessible.”

Sue makes an effort to engage the group with more visual forms of communication like picture cards, discussion and activities that demonstrate biblical themes.

“Once we spoke about sin, missing the mark, not getting things right,” said Sue.

“A volunteer brought in a football net and we threw things in trying to score a goal. We had great fun doing that but we also demonstrated that sin is not black and white; that you can be pretty close but not get it quite right. What does that mean? We need to practice, to think about things before we do them.”

She said running Access Bible study is not a matter of adapting children’s study material for adults who have trouble reading because adults with intellectual disabilities also have wisdom and life experience to bring to discussions.

“People with disabilities often show great resilience,” said Sue.

“Imagine you cannot read and you have to learn how to catch a train and a bus to get somewhere without reading signs. I think it takes a lot of courage everyday to do that. You are trusting people to interpret your mail, manage your money. I see people who live their lives with courage every day, often with good grace.”

Slowing the pace

Twenty-six years ago Emily Longhurst was born 16 weeks premature. She spent her first year on life support, is totally blind and has mild-cerebral palsy.

Emily relies on others for everyday tasks like getting dressed, cutting food, handling money and cooking.

But her church has always ensured she has been included in anything she wants to do.

Emily has a significant musical gift and song leads at St Matthew’s Uniting Church in Baulkham Hills. She attended Sunday school there and when it was decided that it wasn’t in her best interest to join a large, rowdy youth group, St Matthew’s decided to trial a youth group of her own.

At Teen Plus young adults are encouraged to be themselves. Spontaneous dancing, singing and talking is allowed. The words failure and stupid are not.

“They enjoy being in a place where things go at their pace,” said Jane, Emily’s mother and Teen Plus coordinator.

“They don’t need to adjust to the world. The world adjusts to them.

“Disabled people are constantly, constantly being asked to adjust to the world we live in. We might put in ramps and elevators but this place  — and there should be more of them — is a place where the world is theirs and anyone who comes in comes into their pace.

“It won’t change; I won’t let it change. They own that.”

St Matthew’s supported Teen Plus members to go to NCYC in Newcastle, an event Emily closed in prayer and still talks about six years later.

“I’m very fortunate in that I have a wonderful group of supporters at St Matthew’s with Teen Plus and the kids have never been banned or stood down or asked not to do anything. I don’t think that’s the case in a lot of places. But I think we could expand it more.”

Jane plans to conduct a survey among the congregation to find out what other needs might be out there that the church could better cater for.

“Disability isn’t just our kids who are quite severely impaired. If you can’t hear the service, that’s disabling. If people can’t read the newssheets, that’s disabling. If people can’t sit comfortably that needs to be addressed.

“It’s not just the obvious things. I am an elder and we want to get a survey together just to see what’s out there — to take the lid off.”

Jan Miller believes that in the past ten years there has been a lot of improvement in churches towards becoming more inclusive and she expects it to only get better.

“I think there is probably less ignorance than there was,” she said.

“I think there is a lot of flexibility in the Uniting Church to be able to provide flexible services that accommodate people with disabilities.”

As a family support worker at Forestville Uniting, Jan feels it is also her responsibility to kick-start the inclusion she would like to see more of.

“It’s a big risk but I feel it is one worth taking. You don’t need to read very far into the Bible and it is telling you: We should be including people.

“I want to find other people in ministry who are willing to take the risk and try one service, one time. Then see where we go from there.”

For Sue, Jan’s is the exact attitude that gives her hope.

“I’m about to start a placement in New Lambton,” she said.

“They’ve got a nice, curved pathway coming in and everything is on one level. There is a disabled toilet. The pews might need to go: where would you fit a wheelchair?

“I’d written a letter to Insights and a guy from New Lambton read it and told me they’d done these things.

“I’m thrilled when churches make that effort. And then I think, well, they’ve made it this far — let’s push it a little further.”

Lyndal Irons

For a copy of the DVD Living Life with Courage and Grace contact UnitingCare.

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