Last week I visited an old friend. We were at teacher training college together as graduates and we both became Readers (Licensed Lay Ministers) in the same diocese, though she is quite a bit older than I am.
Until about 18 months ago she was still very active in ministry, leading worship, preaching and acting as a chaplain to a residential care home. Then she had a couple of minor strokes, and several falls, and a couple of months ago, she decided she could no longer cope alone in her own home, and she booked herself into a room in a care home in her parish.
Now she can only walk with the help of a Zimmer frame, and if she wants to be taken outside the home, she has to go in a wheelchair. Her minds is still very active, though.
Recently, she asked to be taken back to the church where she ministered, for the funeral of an old friend. The staff member delivered her in her wheelchair, and then left. My friend was disturbed to find that, in a wheelchair, she was virtually invisible. Eventually, someone asked if she wanted to be wheeled into church. After the service, she joined the congregation for a reception in the church hall. Although she had known and ministered to many of the people there for many years, she said few people stopped to talk to her. The conversation went, literally, over her head. She remarked to me that for the first time, she felt the reality of the “Does he take sugar? Syndrome”
My parish church, like many others, proclaims itself an inclusive church. We don’t treat women or gays any differently from anyone else; we don’t have any hang-ups about race or churchmanship. But I do wonder how inclusive we are when it comes to people with disabilities? We used to have a member of the clergy who had a family member with cerebral palsy, who acted as our Disability Awareness Officer, and tried to get sidespeople and congregation members trained to be aware of the special needs of people with different disabilities, without a great deal of success. Other things were always more important.
We built a new wheelchair accessible foyer and an accessible toilet, and marked out two special parking spaces in the car park. But the accessible door has to be locked during services, because people coming in there could get to the choir vestry without being seen, and on a previous occasion, someone got in and rifled through their belongings and stole money. So, anyone who comes late in a wheelchair, or with a small child in a pram, cannot slip in quietly, but needs either to ring a bell and hope someone hears and unlocks the door; or negotiate the many steps, doors and levels of the main entrance.
We have a loop system; but it doesn’t seem to cover the whole church, or work very well, judging by the reactions of one person who is constantly adjusting their hearing aid. We have large print hymnbooks, but don’t do large print versions of our church-produced service leaflets because ‘there’s no demand’ from regulars.
We have a historic building, not designed to modern standards, so it is difficult to provide wheelchair access to all parts of our plant. But although we pride ourselves on being a friendly and welcoming church, (which church doesn’t?) I wonder how welcoming we really are to people with any sort of disability?
This is another area where it seems the church needs to learn from the secular world how to be truly inclusive and welcoming.