Imagine attending church as an adult with a learning disability. It's a friendly place. You love Jesus and enjoy singing the worship songs. But it's hard too. You want to learn more about God, but the sermons are confusing, and Christian books are full of difficult words in small print. Without appropriate teaching and encouragement, how can you grow in your faith?
Over 2% of adults in the UK have a learning disability. Many churches are working to make services more accessible for those with additional needs by making space for wheelchairs, offering a quiet room for people with sensory difficulties or providing service information in simple language.
Too often though, Bible teaching and application – such a central part of living out our faith - remain inaccessible to those with limited understanding. It isn't enough just to include people with learning disabilities in church community. These believers, like the rest of us, also need support to grow towards spiritual maturity.
Some churches address this challenge by running groups for adults with learning disabilities, or by mentoring people individually. However, this often relies on having church members with the necessary skills. When I helped to set up a group in my own church, we needed to cater for a range of different needs and levels of understanding. Our team had a wealth of professional and personal experience supporting those with additional needs, but running such a diverse group was still a challenge. In churches where there is no obvious person to take the lead, it must be hard to know where to begin.
To disciple people with learning disabilities well, the first thing churches need is training and support. There are some great Christian organisations working in this area: Through the Roof, Count Everyone In and the Additional Needs Alliance are all dedicated to helping churches meet the needs of their disabled and neurodiverse members.
When it comes to planning sessions, however, there are hardly any resources available to help group leaders teach the Bible in a simple and accessible way. Instead, they must either heavily adapt mainstream materials, or – as in our case and that of most others I've spoken to – make their own. This is a time-consuming task, and another barrier that makes starting a group difficult and daunting for those without experience.
For people with learning disabilities who simply want to read the Bible on their own, there is, if anything, an even greater lack of support. Finding resources that use simple enough language is hard enough, but accessible presentation is equally important. 'Easy read' guidelines for making written information easier to understand recommend a clear, uncluttered layout, large, well-spaced text and lots of blank space.
These adjustments make it easier for people with learning disabilities, as well as those with dyslexia and sensory difficulties, to visually process what they are reading. Use of colour pictures and symbols to support the text also helps to aid understanding.
The lack of suitable resources means that some adults with learning disabilities resort to using children's books, but these rarely meet the requirements for accessible presentation. More importantly, they are a poor solution for adults, with adult experiences, questions and concerns. How would any of us feel if we were expected to make do with books written for children? If we value our brothers and sisters with learning disabilities, we must do better.
Wanting to address this problem, I decided to share the Bible study handouts I was creating for my group. They are now available to download from the 'easy read' section of my website, valleyofsprings.com, where I also write devotional blogs and articles about the basics of Christianity, all aimed at anyone who finds reading hard.
In July this year I published my first easy read book, 'Living Well With God', a collection of 52 interactive Bible lessons on wellbeing in different areas of life. It's written at a 5 to 7-year-old reading level, and can be used as a devotional for individual study or a teaching resource for groups.
It's important to remember that learning disabilities cover a wide spectrum, and even easy read materials are not accessible for everyone. Songs, simple stories and sensory activities are helpful for engaging those who have a lower level of understanding, and there is a need for more creative resources in this area too.
Becoming mature believers is about our whole lives, and being limited in our ability to develop our knowledge certainly does not exclude us from the kingdom of God. Still, we must guard against making assumptions about how much someone can understand. In my experience, most people with learning disabilities are capable of more than we might guess at first, and many can grasp quite complex ideas with the right support.
Jesus said that the kingdom of God belongs to those who are like little children (Luke 18:16). This seems to put at the heart of our faith not those who are experts in Biblical theology but those who are vulnerable, who may not understand as much, and who need the care and guidance of others. Our Father doesn't give priority to those the world sees as clever, talented or important, but values all who come to him, cherishing our personalities, our differences, and the unique gifts he has given each of us. People with learning disabilities are not in our churches primarily to be ministered to, but to join in reflecting God's image into the world and bring their own perspectives to our shared Christian journey.
The Body of Christ needs each of its parts. By offering people with learning disabilities the opportunity to grow in their knowledge of God and his word to us in the Bible, we enable them to bless the whole church. Let's value each other as Jesus does, encouraging and supporting one another as we grow together to be more like him.
Jo Acharya is a writer and qualified music therapist who has worked with people with learning disabilities for 18 years. 'Living Well With God: Easy Read Bible Lessons for People Who Find Reading Hard' is available from all good bookshops. Visit valleyofsprings.com to purchase signed copies of the book, download a free leader's guide and explore Jo's collection of easy read resources.