Jenny* was agitated. She was at the lectern, reading from John 11 and feeling the emotion of what was coming next. “Where have you put him?” he asked. “Come and see, Lord,” they replied.

As Jenny gulped and sobs ran through her body, the vicar walked over and waited silently beside her until she composed herself. The congregation sat there as if holding a corporate breath. Jenny gasped and said, “Jesus wept.” There was hardly a dry eye in church that morning.”

Jenny* has Down’s Syndrome and her speech can be unclear. Church is enriched when everyone is welcome.

We say that everyone is welcome but it’s not always as easy as it sounds, especially so with adults with learning disabilities and autism. If we believe that the good news of Jesus Christ is for all people then we must find ways of reaching and welcoming everyone, including those with learning disabilities. Why should they miss out on knowing Jesus and the strength that He gives us day by day?

Verbal communication may be difficult. What will they do? Will they be noisy and create a disturbance? Will they be aggressive? Are we safe?

It’s easier to be forgiving of inappropriate behaviour from cute little children with additional needs, not forgetting that there can be significant challenges in our children’s groups and life at home is likely to be stressful too.

Here are some practical suggestions for making our churches more accessible for adults with learning disabilities:

• Be welcoming but don’t overwhelm or rush people, avoiding eye contact
• Don’t make assumptions but explain simply what will happen and where – they may not read but pictures or symbols may help.
• Treat adults as adults; don’t be condescending and speak directly to the individual, not to their support worker of family member whenever possible
• Use language that is easy to understand, avoiding (or explaining briefly) complicated words and concepts
• Be prepared for disturbances – people with autism may need to make repetitive movements or noises (stimming) to keep themselves calm
• If your sermon lasts longer than 10 minutes why not try ‘chunking up’, interspersing it with songs/hymns etc? Remember that one well-made point can be more memorable than the traditional three-point sermon, even if they all start with the same letter!
• Finish on time: people may depend on pre-arranged transport or have set meal times. Ending at the published time is more likely if the service starts promptly!

If you’d like advice on the use of fonts and backgrounds, and other ways for your church to be more accessible, possibly including starting a discipleship group, then why not get in touch with us at Count Everyone In? With 20+ years of experience we’d love to come to your church with our Know & Grow workshops.

For more information go to Count Everyone In or email Pete or Christine Winmill 

A church that is accessible for adults with learning disabilities is likely to be accessible for everyone.

*not her real name