The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has reported that one in five disabled Britons are losing their rights as 'more and more disabled people are finding it difficult to live independently and be included, and participate, in their communities on an equal basis'. Alongside this, the Care Quality Commission (CQC) has released its annual State of Care report which highlights that people's experience of care 'are often determined by how well different parts of local systems work together'.
Some people are unable to access the support they need or the quality of care is not good. With cuts to funding, low staff retention rates and more than 110,000 vacancies in adult social care, there is a real need and an opportunity for the church to make a difference.
There are some fantastic resources available to help support churches in welcoming those with disabilities into the life of the church, such as the recent More Than Welcome resource from Livability. Churches For All, Additional Needs Alliance, Through the Roof and many more are doing brilliant work to support churches and those with additional needs or disabilities. Supporting and raising awareness of what is already available is a must.
However, I write this from a personal perspective too. My sister has cerebral palsy and has recently transitioned from children's to adult social services care. During her childhood and teenage years she had the opportunity to do week-long residentials and there were service providers and purpose-built facilities to meet her needs. She loved it and really looked forward to the activities, spending time with the staff and having a change of scenery.
Unfortunately, this level of service provision has not continued into her adult life. Even though her needs are the same, the services to support her and the wider family are not. There is not a suitable place for adequate respite nearby, which means that my family does not get a break. This leads to isolation, made worse by living in a rural area, exhaustion, as there is not a wide support network available (few family members, friends who work full-time for example) and poor mental health from carrying the load 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
With all of this considered, I have thought about the role of the church. With the social care sector struggling, Christians are well placed to look out for our neighbours' practical needs. Here are some ideas about how we can be more intentional in our care towards those with additional needs and their carers.
1. Be welcoming
Go above and beyond with your hospitality and invite them round. Give them a point of contact in church and see how you can help. Look out for them every week and try and organise a time and place to meet up outside of Sundays to get to know them more. Introduce a space to facilitate community by welcoming those with additional needs and their carers who might not have a link with the church at all. This might be through an activity or a mid-week group for example.
2. Follow up
I know of a family who filled in their details on one of those forms for new church attenders in the hope of someone getting in touch, but who never heard anything back. It can be frustrating to not have the support of the local church community, a place where you would expect to be listened to. Be intentional and keep in touch. It can be a challenge just to get to church and if they struggle to get there, be sure to find out how they are doing.
3. Get to know them and their carer
Sometimes we can address the carer and speak over the individual with additional needs. This might be because we just haven't thought to include them or don't know what to say. Make sure that you involve everyone in the conversation. Equally, don't overlook the carer but get to know them too. Sit with them and make sure that there are seats so that the carer can sit with who they are caring for. I have heard of stories where there is a seating area for wheelchairs but nowhere for the carer to sit.
4. Pick up the phone and see how they are
An old-fashioned phone call can go a long way in seeing how someone is doing in their week. This is a way of letting them know that they are not forgotten. Offer them a chance of a visit if they would like. You can see if there is anything that they would like prayer for, but even if they don't, remember them in your prayers and bring them before God.
5. Visit them
Many people are unable to get to church or out and about easily. We may not be able to do everything, but everyone can do something. Perhaps we can offer them transport to hospital appointments or church or provide a listening ear or meal to a family who are going through a difficult time. Let's not have an 'out of sight, out of mind' mentality and make sure that we offer to visit on more than one occasion.
6. Ask how you can be a support
Everyone has different needs so it is important to get to know the individual and not prescribe a 'one size fits all' approach of what we think they might need. Get to know them, build a friendship, find out what they like and dislike, what is difficult for them and offer to help. It might mean learning a new skill, letting the carer have an afternoon or evening off, joining them in an activity, giving them a financial gift to bless them or do some research if they need help finding the right care that they need.
7. Make sure the church is accessible
There might be short term and long term goals with what can be achieved with accessibility, but there should be a way for those with disabilities to feel welcomed and included in the life of the church straight away. I recently read of churches that provide sensory boxes with ear defenders – in all our enthusiasm to praise God, have we considered the impact that a really loud worship set could have on someone with special needs or even for members of the congregation who struggle with loud noise? Having a quieter space, larger print, hearing loops, accessible toilets, clear visuals, ramps etc. are small changes that can make a big difference. I thoroughly recommend Mark Arnold's blog The Additional Needs Blogfather and Lynn McCann's blog includedbbygrace for further ideas.
Keep them in prayer and offer to pray with them. This should be part of any support given because the Lord hears our prayers and can intercede in situations and challenging circumstances.