This is the beginning of a series of blog posts on disability and academia, partly based on recent experiences I’ve had as a disabled/neurodivergent attender of academic conferences. Part 2 will be about physical access (oh, and how much fun I’ve had with that over the past year). And there will be a part with recommendations. This part, though, is about my experiences of neurodiversity access at conference. It’s going to be a long one, so I’m dividing it up with headings – readers can jump to the section that they’re most interested in.
Yesterday, the fantastic user-led organisation Disability and Jesus held a twitter action to encourage churches to think more about access for disabled people. The twitter tag was #fullaccesschurch – you can still go there are see the exciting, imaginative and involved discussions we had there about disability access to churches.
I ended up having a bit of a discussion with someone who said their church couldn’t afford access adaptations. Meanwhile, the wonderful Anne Memmot has written about focusing on access for those with other impairments, rather than letting the expensive ones distract us from doing anything. I understand both these perspectives. But I want to present a different perspective, from my vantage point as someone who no longer attends church, largely because I got sick of the terrible access everywhere I went, and having to fight for my right to get in through almost every church door I encountered.
I’ve been into some very well-off churches. One London church comes to mind where they installed a full cafe in the basement, with no mobility access to it, and began to hold all their Bible study and social groups there. Hint: there would have been no cost attached to holding a few groups in the wheelchair-accessible sanctuary and having some basic tea and coffee facilities upstairs. But they hadn’t thought of this – because it wasn’t important to them.
The official number of wheelchair users in the UK is 1.2 million (according to statistics collected in 2000 – the number is likely to have risen by now, with our ageing population). But that doesn’t include all the hundreds of thousands of part-time wheelchair users, electric scooter users, crutch and stick users, and many others with restricted mobility who benefit from mobility adaptations. I suspect the number of mobility-impaired people is actually much, much higher – especially as other statistics show that 27% of young disabled people have a disability relating to mobility. That’s a lot of us disabled folks who are moblity-impaired in some way. Add older people, of whom a huge number use sticks, scooters etc, and you have a lot of people who can benefit from relatively cheap portable ramps and some thought put into where groups are held.
And now think about all the other people who benefit from mobility-friendly environments. Parents with children, including developmentally delayed older children. Older people who aren’t ready to define as having mobility impairments, but still appreciate flat access. People with other impairments, such as visual impairments, who can fall on badly-designed steps.
Many adaptations cost almost nothing – as Anne Memmot says. This is important for churches to know and think about. There are things they can do that will help a lot of people, for not a great deal of money – and sometimes for free.
But we have to face the fact that some adaptations do have a cost attached. Ramps may cost a few hundred pounds, more if they’re architecturally tricky. Hearing-aid loops may be about £1000 or a little more. The right kind of lighting for visually impaired and autistic people will have some cost attached. Basic toilet adaptations like grip-handles are not unaffordable but also not free. Large-print or easy-read Bibles are worthwhile for many congregations but will cost some money.
I don’t accept the argument that churches can’t afford adaptations. While not all churches are rich, it’s interesting that they can usually afford what’s important to them. At a group discussion I was at yesterday, a father of a wheelchair-using child spoke about the cost issue. “Cost?” he said. “You want to talk about cost? Jesus died for us!” The fact that churches don’t balk at putting in expensive cafe facilities, but do at disability access adaptations, shows what they value. And that’s often the comfort of the non-disabled people of God over the access of another part of the Body.
I, for one, am tired of the resistant tone and serious faces attached whenever I bring up access – especially mobility access. Stop talking to me about it as though I’m asking too much. If you woke up tomorrow and could no longer get into your local church, along with millions of other people who suddenly couldn’t get into their local churches, the world would hear about it very quickly. But disabled people, including mobility-impaired people, are always accused of asking too much of the churches. I don’t believe that we are. I believe we’re asking for our civil rights under British law, our human rights under European law, and justice from the people of God.
When people say “Access isn’t all about wheelchairs,” they’re absolutely right. We need to talk about all the other ways that people can be included. And as Anne Memmot says, that can be achieved for very little money. Some of it is even free. But not all of it will be free. So I’ll keep fighting for a truly #fullaccesschurch, with full access for ALL.
Whose ministry is your church missing out on, all because they can’t get in through the door or up to the pulpit?