You know when people talk about the gifts God has given you…well I always say that God has given me the gift of the “gab”, that is…to be able to talk a lot. Before I became a Christian in 1989, as a student I was painfully shy and had no friends, partly because I found it hard to talk to people. How I was managing as a trainee teacher I do not know!
But with Jesus came a new life, new friends and something I wanted to talk about. Over the years he has given me more boldness to speak out more than I ever imagined. After teaching for many years, I now run my own consultancy to support children with autism in schools and spend my time speaking out on their behalf, delivering training to rooms full of people and writing/ blogging regularly. But what I really love to talk about is my Lord, Jesus Christ and His Gospel.
"How could I explain the gospel to people who are profoundly disabled, who cannot speak and find the world a confusing and frightening place?"
I love how God acts. His answer was to send me to a church that had a ministry for adults with learning disabilities. Nine years later, I am one of the Good News Group’s leaders and regularly teach the Bible to adults who have a wide range of abilities and disabilities. I have learned about using different ways of communicating; using the senses, carefully chosen words, puppets and drama, pictures and signing. I have learned that the Good News of Jesus Christ does not exclude anyone and the most profound faith can be found in the ‘the least of these’ as society sees them. My most uplifting part of the week is joining people who society treats as ‘less’ as they pray. If faith is coming to Jesus knowing how helpless you really are, then they have taught me much about my own faith.
But what I have really begun to shout about is how people with learning disabilities are fully members of the church. They have abilities and gifts that can serve the rest of the church and if we make church accessible for them, they can offer and use their gifts. Our church has many groups and services that are not Sunday services. There are logistical reasons such as transport and staffing that mean that a midweek service is much more accessible for most of our group of up to 35 adults with learning disabilities and their carers. Special Sundays such as Easter Sunday are times for everyone to come together. And at our church, the Easter Sunday service was led by our Good News Group. For me, it was a sign that our church wants to recognise the ABILITIES of people with disabilities. We all know we have more work to do, but it was a joyful service because it was so inclusive. Once it ceases to become a novelty, and is the norm, then we have come a long way indeed.
"Reasons include not feeling accepted, being asked to leave, people having no idea what challenges and emotions they are experiencing and having too low expectations of their abilities"
So why do so many families and people with disabilities find church really hard? Reasons include not feeling accepted, being asked to leave, people having no idea what challenges and emotions they are experiencing and having too low expectations of their abilities. In my experience, the most common response I get when I start to talk about people with disabilities is, “We haven’t thought about them.”
So my regular blogs for Premier digital will be me ‘gabbing on’ about inclusion in our churches. I’m a member of some other organisations that are working for the same aim and you can find links to these on my ‘about’ page on my includedbygrace blog. There is some brilliant and inclusive practice being done by churches and I am privileged to be part of a wonderful team at my church who work together with our adults with learning disabilities to develop their faith and gifts to serve our Lord Jesus. As I often say…”I’m just the ‘gobby’ one who talks about it”, but then if God gives you a gift, you’ve got to use it!
P.S. “Gab” and “Gobby” are Lancashire words that mean “to be talkative”.