I'm not just autistic. I'm also dyspraxic, and have arthritis and a spinal condition. And I've had cancer which has left me with sensory loss and long term pain. So I have to think about all sorts of disability accommodations. Especially when visiting places with friends and family who are Blind, Deaf, hearing impaired, wheelchair users etc. I am not a formally approved Access Consultant, but I am the leading expert on autism access for churches in the country. What I say here is a generalisation and a personal viewpoint from long experience of being faced with difficulties, not an Official Statement. It is absolutely true that every single person needs access to everything. But if we start from there, often the task looks so great that most give up.
About £600 and some planning will do it for 90% of disabled people.
People tend to assume I'm making this up. Or that I have no idea what I'm talking about.
But it's true. Even the most rural, historic, inaccessible church can cover 90% of disability needs with a budget of about £600.
People think of disability as being wheelchair users. After all, that's the international symbol for disability.
There's about 800,000 wheelchair users. Yes, each person who uses a wheelchair for their freedom needs to be able to go to church etc. Definitely. I have many friends who are wheelchair users and I've felt their pain when they cannot access things. Especially after a long and difficult start to the day to get ready for it. Likewise, some churches are inaccessible for me as an autistic person and there's not a lot that we can do about it right now. But we can do something in most buildings.
The Equality Act 2010 is a very fair law. It says that if a place really cannot afford to do something, it doesn't have to. If you take good expert advice, and plan carefully, you will know what is doable in your budget. And what isn't.
So, let's do the do-able instead. What follows are just examples, not a definitive list. It is to get you thinking. There's definitely more that can be done for each group. Ask the individuals what will help. Find out who your Diocesan disability adviser is. A good access consultant can really help with thinking and planning. Do your planning and write it down, carefully, with the wisdom of someone who knows about disability access.
We have some 3 million with hearing impairment. In a small church, a portable hearing loop costs £100 to £250. Not perfect, but a start. Make sure people can see your lips clearly when you talk. Talk to someone with hearing impairment in a quieter place if you can.
We have some 2 million with visual impairment. Some safety hazard tape on steps and edges, and large print hymn books and Bibles will cost you £50 and will help many. So will a bowl of water for guide dogs. That'd cost nothing if you re-use a plastic tub.
We have around 1 million autistic individuals in the UK. who may struggle to see and hear in a noisy service. If your church has a website or blog, put a plan of the building on it. Or on the noticeboard. Tell us where a quiet corner is, or quiet room. Be clear about what will happen in your services - a couple of minutes of explanation. Buy some standard lamps that don't use fluorescent bulbs, for any areas normally lit by fluorescent light. £20. (Some autistic people cannot cope with fluorescent lighting as it looks like a strobe light). Buy a set of noise-cancelling headphones for those who struggle with noise levels. £30. Read the top tips for autism in the Welcoming Those with Autism guide for churches (easy to 'google').
We have some 10 million with arthritis who might benefit from a chair with arms and a cushion. And anyone with co-ordination difficulties may appreciate a mug with a large handle - rather than balancing a tea cup on a saucer. Cost £100 as a starter.
We have over a million with learning disabilities who will appreciate extra explanation and an easier-read newsletter. Often local charities are pleased to help guide you on this.
Be aware that 10 million in the country struggle to read English beyond primary school level. Be mindful about who you pick on in the church services to do a reading. Perhaps read out instructions rather than assume everyone can read them.
Be aware of where the nearest usable loo is, even if it's not in your building. Maybe set up an emergency loo-sharing agreement with a nearby house.
Be really welcoming and inclusive. Disability inclusion isn't, "Letting the person sit in the pew and then go home". That's such a lonely experience. It's about friendship, about love, about finding out what we can offer your church. We're friends and colleagues, prayer partners and Bible Study leaders. We have our own skills and abilities to bring to your church, and we don't want to be objects of pity or the 'scary person we let sit in the corner'. We want to help, and to share, and to worship God alongside you. Get to know us as people. Often we can bring our own solutions with us.
None of the above has needed building works, grants, upheaval, 17 committee meetings, scary inspections or breaking open the Diocesan gin. If that what was you were imagining...
It's not a definitive list. You have to do your own list, for your own building and congregation. But it's potentially just helped 90% of disabled people and those who struggle with reading.
Is there another benefit? Yes. Historic rural churches who are accessible in the ways shown above tend to grow by an average of 2 new people a year. (Robust research over five years).
If there's bigger budgets, fantastic. Look at grants. But don't let historic rural buildings and tiny budgets put you off.
Like we read in the Bible, all are loved, all are welcome. And all are your new friends.