Churches explore ways to welcome people with learning disabilities
Published on 9 March, 2017
People with learning disabilities often face barriers and exclusion which make it difficult to feel they belong. Congregations in Kinross and Burntisland are at the forefront of a movement to make sure everyone is welcome no matter what their learning abilities.
Lindsay Cant, who was born with a learning disability, joined the church when she was 17 and hates to miss worship, even when she’s on holiday.
Lindsay is a strong advocate for accessibility within the church as well as a worship leader and a member of her church’s welcome team. And she is a keen supporter of the national charity Prospects, which helps congregations welcome people with learning disabilities into church communities.
“All churches should have a Prospects group because it is very good for disabled people and it’s fun to do,” she says.
“We share news about what’s been happening, and we celebrate birthdays. We do our own prayers and it works perfect. Some of our members can’t speak very well so we don’t read very much. What we do is to act Bible stories out as a drama. It’s brilliant and we make it more fun that way.”
Starting the discussion
Lindsay has been involved with Faith and Light groups, which are small faith communities of friends that include people with intellectual disabilities.
In 2015, after taking part in the Creating Communities of Belonging conference in 2015, Lindsay joined the Scottish Churches Disability Group committee.
She is also working closely with the Church of Scotland’s Learning Disability Working Group.
Last year the Church published a 'discussion starter' on Learning Disability. Now the group is building a network of learning disability contacts across the country and offering support to anyone working to build a more welcoming environment within their own church communities.
The group meets in different places each time to meet as many people as possible and has created a new video to reach out to people and encourage them to join the network.
Later this year the working group will be distributing an action pack to help congregations get started.
All Friends Together
Lindsay first got started with Prospects through a friend who invited her to attend a group at St Ninian’s in Dunfermline. Impressed, Lindsay then brought the idea to Kinross Parish Church.
With encouragement from her minister Rev Alan Reid and other church members she helped found the Kinross Parish Church All Friends Together group.
Lindsay had noticed that three regular attenders at worship tended to sit with their carers in the gallery away from the body of the kirk and even left early to avoid the rush. She wondered if the group could help them feel more at home.
The All Friends Together group brought a new dimension to the church, introducing a monthly get-together that includes singing, crafts and a bible story sometimes told with puppets or with special sound effects, as well as a shared meal.
Rev Alan Reid, minister at Kinross Parish Church says that the ‘All Friends Together’ group has been an inspiring addition to the church community.
“It’s been great,” he says. “It’s a lovely atmosphere and everyone has a lot of fun. On one occasion when we were playing a game with hats, the results were so hilarious everyone was laughing so hard they were rolling on the floor."
The three church members with learning disabilities now sit downstairs at the family services and show by their smiles and behaviour that they feel more confident. And the All Friends Together group has even attracted people who have never before attended church.
Rev Alan Sharp, whose 32-year-old son David has a learning disability, says his Burntisland congregation has found Prospects Scotland a great help in starting their own group.
The Burntisland Parish Church group meets one Saturday a month to enjoy a singsong, crafts and worship along with a tea or coffee.
About 20 people attend including 8 people with learning disabilities and, the minister says, the group is “very important” to the church.
People with learning disabilities are all different and will participate in their own way, Mr Sharp says.
“The first thing is just to engage with people and get to know them as individuals. Don’t be afraid of getting it wrong or that you don’t know what is appropriate. Just get to know people.
“Someone who doesn’t speak more than a few words may still understand a lot of speech. Some people find interaction difficult while others love to socialise.
“There’s a lot of joy and love in our group,” the minister added. “David (his son) plays drums in the band, hands out the hymn books and really enjoys the worship. He puts up with his dad’s preaching but he really enjoys the singing.
“David and many of his friends are very friendly and love to help. We just need to make sure they have that opportunity.”
Join the Church of Scotland’s learning disability network and learn more about how to build a more inclusive church. Email firstname.lastname@example.org
The Guild has chosen to support Prospects as one of its special projects during 2015-18.