These pages are intended to help you to ensure your church buildings, worship, activities and congregations are as welcoming and inclusive as possible, for all in your local community, and in particular for people with disabilities.
We all want our churches to be places of welcome for all, and indeed we believe that church communities are only whole when they include everyone.
However, there may well be barriers, visible or invisible, keeping people away from our churches.
A good starting point is to undertake a disability access audit; looking at many aspects of your church building, worship and activities, to assess how inclusive they already are, and if there are ways that you could improve them. It cannot possibly consider every aspect and detail of the great variety of churches in the Diocese, but hopefully will encourage you to think about some areas that may not have occurred to you as significant for disability inclusion.
You are very welcome to work through the audit below but we encourage you to get in touch with Diocesan Disability Advisor, Alice Kemp, who is able to come and work through it with you.
Revd Alice Kemp
All churches have responsibilities under the Equality Act 2010. This act encompasses all the requirements of its predecessor as well as introducing further duties in relation to disability discrimination.
Key points in the Equality Act
"The definition of disability is much broader than we sometimes think.
Disability is now defined as:
A physical or mental impairment that has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on the ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities.”
So, in addition to physical and sensory impairment, disability includes mental health issues and learning disabilities, as well as ‘hidden’ disabilities such as epilepsy, diabetes, arthritis, autism, and various conditions which may cause chronic pain. So any church congregation is likely to have a considerable number of people living with disability, and we may not always be aware of it.
Strong emphasis is given in the legislation to involving disabled people in consultations about changes or developments to buildings. It is
recommended that in addition to consulting with those in the congregation, you invite the wider community to have their say.
Churches are required to do all things reasonable to remove barriers to people with disabilities, or to provide services in a different way which makes them accessible, taking into account different needs. ‘Reasonable’ is not defined in the legislation, but it is understood that a small rural church with few resources would not be expected to have as much funding available as a large town centre church with more funds and more capacity to do the work of fundraising, planning and project managing refurbishment work and so on.
The legislation requires us to be ‘anticipatory’ – we need to think ahead about who might come to our church, whether for a service or as a visitor or tourist, and how the needs of our present congregation may develop in the future. This of course is also the message of the Gospel!
Remember too that people with disabilities may be leaders or ministers in our churches – don’t fall into the trap of thinking that disability access is about enabling ‘them’ to ‘come in’. Disabled people are already here, and should have as much opportunity as others to develop in leadership and vocation.
The Equality Act upholds the principle that in relation to disability people should be enabled to be independent, where this is appropriate to the individual’s age. We like to be helpful and ‘help’ a wheelchair user down the steps into church, but this should be avoided if at all possible; apart from being a safety risk to all involved, it can diminish the independence and dignity of the person.
By working through the Diocesan Accessibility Audit, you will be fulfilling your legal duty to audit your church. You should report on what you find – what barriers you may have to disability access, and what reasonable adjustments you could make.
Discussions and decisions should be recorded in your PCC minutes, to show that you are aware of your responsibilities and have taken all reasonable steps to meet them. It is advisable to record what steps you plan to take in the immediate, short and longer term. This plan will be important if you need to apply for a faculty as it will show that any work you are doing is part of a longer term plan.
The Accessibility Audit
The diocesan Accessibility Audit takes the shape of a series of questions to consider. Some of them you may not know the answer to and will require you to do some consultation. There is an optional sheet Accessibility Audit recording sheet on which you can record your findings.
You are encouraged to contact our Diocesan Disability Advisor, Alice Kemp, who is able to come and work through the audit with you.
Finding your church
This may seem a strange question to ask, as of course you know where your church is, and you know how to get there. But for people with anxiety issues or some people on the autistic spectrum, for example, it may not be so obvious. We all learn and take in information in different ways – some people prefer maps, others prefer descriptive directions, some people need directions with pictures or photos of the place they are trying to find.
It is worth checking that information about your church on A Church Near You is up-to-date and includes access information. If your church has a website, try to offer directions and location information in as many ways as possible. Websites can be difficult to read for people who are visually impaired and need to use a ‘screen reader’. It is worth asking someone who regularly uses a screen reader to test out your website.
Please include information about public transport, where this is realistic, and also instructions about where to park, as some people need this information beforehand, rather than having to work it out when they arrive.
Getting to your church
It is important to bear in mind that people with disabilities, including people with mental health problems, are among the poorest in our society. Many people with disabilities are reliant on benefits, and not everyone has a car. So it may be that some people with disabilities can only get to a Sunday service if they are near enough to walk or cycle, or if a lift can be offered. Sunday mornings may also be a difficult time for people to get to church because of medication (which often takes effect later in the day) or caring responsibilities.
Most churches offer lifts to people who cannot get there otherwise. For those people in your community that you don’t yet know, but would like to reach, you may want to consider these factors.
Approaching your church building
If you have a gate at the start of a path leading up to your church, please consider how easy this is to open for people who may have painful conditions such as arthritis. Are you able to leave the gate open, safely? If you do need to keep it closed, make sure the handle is as easy to open as possible for a disabled person.
If you have a path up to your church or church yard consider how suitable the surface is for people with disabilities. Check for obvious trip hazards such as broken or uneven paving slabs. Gravel can be a particularly difficult to get wheelchairs over so consider using Hoggin or bonded gravel. If you have grass paths through a graveyard these should be mown and not strimmed as this will provide a more even surface. Where there are slopes or steps, rails should be provided.
If you have a car park of reasonable size for your church, you should provide at least one disabled parking space. If you do not have a car park, but are aware that a disabled driver is coming to a service or event, you can create a temporary disabled parking space with bollards and a notice with the person’s name on it next to the space not in it, as they would need someone to move the bollards in order to park.
Signs and notice boards
Consider how easy it is for people who are passing to read your noticeboards. For people who have visual impairment, notices and signage need to be printed clearly with sharp colour contrast (black or a very dark colour on white or a very pale colour, or the reverse). The more concise you can make them, the clearer they will be. This is also helpful for people with learning disabilities.
It is important to make it really clear where the main entrance to your church is. People with anxiety issues or autism spectrum disorder (ASD) may need especially clear signage to indicate which door you expect them to use. Ideally, the main entrance will be the same one for everyone, but if you have to ask wheelchair users to use a different one, because of level access, it is important that this is clearly signed.
If you are not able to offer a level access into or within your church at the moment, please make sure that any ramp put in place over steps is safe and legal. The maximum permissible gradient is 1:12 (the preferred is 1:20), ie for each inch of the step you will need one foot in length of the ramp. Anything steeper than this is illegal and also dangerous. Ramps need to be made safe with handrails and adequate turning space, and consideration given to the direction in which doors open.
Although ramped access is necessary for wheelchair users, most other people, particularly those who use walking aids, often feel safer with steps so it is important to have adequate width space, with handrails, beside the ramp.
All steps, changes of level and ends of ramps inside and outside need to be clearly marked with a strongly contrasting colour on both the horizontal and vertical edges. This is particularly important for people who are blind or partially sighted.
Any glass doors in your church must have ‘manifestation’ which helps to make them visible, again in particular for people who are blind or partially sighted. There should also be high-contrast marking all around the doors to distinguish from the surrounding.
Good lighting is important for everyone, but especially for those who are blind or have visual impairment as well as for people with hearing impairment. Lighting levels need to be even and constant throughout the building, rather than variable.
All of us rely to some extent on lip reading when we are listening to people, whether or not we are aware of it. For people who are deaf or have a hearing impairment, lip reading can be an important part of their communication. Good lighting assists greatly with this, and it is important that the whole face of the person speaking can be seen clearly, in good, even light. It is also important to ensure that people who are reading / speaking / leading worship are not standing with their back to the light as they will be in shadow making it difficult to see the face and lips clearly. A person who is lip reading will need to be quite close to the speaker, even with good lighting, so please bear in mind that if the person leading worship moves a distance (such as going up to the sanctuary at the start of the Eucharistic prayer) this connection may be lost.
Hearing loops are very helpful for people who rely on hearing aids. If you have a hearing loop in your church, it is important to check regularly that it is working well, and it is important that everyone who is speaking uses the microphones that are linked to it. Please don’t let anyone say, “I can project my voice and so I don’t need a microphone” as this doesn’t help those who tune in to the loop. If you do not have one in your church, please consider having one installed. When installing a loop, it needs to include the chancel area if this is used as ministers may also need to use it.
Moving around inside the church
Consider how easy it is for people, especially those with mobility impairment or visual impairment, to move around to different parts of the church, bearing in mind that people with disabilities are leaders as well as participants. Often there is level access only as far as the chancel step, and it is then assumed that those who cannot walk or wheel up to the altar/communion table if this is in the chancel are happy to receive Communion in their place. It’s always worth checking this and also asking what people would like to do.
Whether your church has pews or chairs, you should consider what the seating is like for people living with pain conditions and for wheelchair users.
People who live with chronic pain, a very common hidden disability, often find pews uncomfortable, and difficult to sit in for any length of time. Is it possible to provide some more comfortable chairs with arms, as many people find they need these to push themselves up?
Do wheelchair users have the same choice of where they can sit in church as everyone else? They may not find it very welcoming if they have to sit at the very front or the very back of the congregation.
Text: orders of service, notice sheets, hymn books and screens
Please consider how accessible these are for people with different disabilities, and in particular for those with visual impairments or learning
disabilities. Please see the diocesan guidelines for text communications.
If you are considering installing toilets in your church, it is a legal requirement to provide at least one accessible toilet. As well as the dimensions and specifications, it is important that the final details are accessible for people with mobility or visual impairment: that taps are easy to turn; that there are the requisite colour contrasts throughout; that mirrors etc are placed at the right height, and that the emergency alarm cord is in place with the right fittings, and that you have a procedure for responding if it is used.
If you currently have toilets at your church, but no accessible ones, you should consider how you might be able to provide one, allowing for cost, space, faculty etc. Although there are no longer ‘grants for disabled facilities’, it may well be possible to obtain a grant from Awards for All (Lottery funds) or other similar small grant organisations, if it is part of a wider project which will improve community access to your church.
You may want to consider what facilities you have within your accessible toilet for people who have additional medical needs. For example this might be someone who needs to self-catheterise, or someone who is doubly incontinent. This could involve the provision of a medical waste disposal bin, a shelf for people to lay out medical equipment on and cleaning material such as anti-bacteria wipes for spillages.
Welcoming people with learning disabilities
There are many ways in which we can make our worship and church life more inclusive of people with learning disabilities: using drama, pictures and simple language in worship; giving a summary of the main points of talks or sermons; appointing a suitable person or small team to befriend individuals with learning disabilities, who ensure they are included in chat after the service, social activities and events such as coffee mornings, away days, fetes and so on.
Welcoming people with autistic spectrum disorder
We need to understand the particular needs which people on the autism spectrum have whilst being mindful that these can vary greatly. A good place to start is Oxford diocese’s guide: ‘Welcoming those with Autism and Asperger Syndrome in our Church Communities’.
Some people on the autistic spectrum can display behaviour which other members of a congregation can find challenging. This is not a reason for excluding them but rather to ask how they can feel more settled and welcome.
Welcoming children with additional needs
All that has been said above applies of course to work with children and young people with additional needs. Families of children with learning disabilities or on the autistic spectrum report that they appreciate churches which accept their child as she or he is, and also ask parents and carers what is most helpful for them. Every effort needs to be made to include them in age appropriate activities.
We have pulled together useful links to charities and organisations offering support to disabled people and churches.
We do not attempt to include here all the necessary detail about measurements and specifications for buildings. However, this information is readily available, and the resources listed above are the best starting point for these.
If you are considering any new building work or refurbishment, you will need to consult the Diocesan Advisory Committee (DAC) and obtain the necessary faculty before starting the work.
These charities and organisations offer support to disabled people and churches. They are a mixture of local and national resources.
The Church of England website has information on the care of church buildings and issues related to accessibility. See www.churchcare.co.uk for their main resource.
English Heritage produce a downloadable document called Easy Access to Historic buildings. It contains useful information about why access matters, planning for better access and making access a reality
Through the Roof is a national charity that has four main areas of work including supporting churches in becoming inclusive and supporting disabled people and their families. 01372 749 955
Livability are a national Christian charity offering a range of support and housing services for people with learning or physical disabilities, mental health issues or Alzheimer’s. They also provide resources and training around disability and dementia. Prospects a charity which provides worship and faith resources and groups for people with learning disabilities is now a part of Livability020 7452 2000
Churches For All is a network of Christian disability organisations. Their aim is to help churches create and sustain an environment where disabled people can participate fully in church life for the benefit of all. Disabled people are involved in the leadership of Churches for All and many of its partner organisations.
Caring 4 our Kids is an association that provides resources for parents of children with ASD,CFS and Fibromyalgia.
Inclusive Church is an educational charity who organise an annual conference about disability and the church as St Martin in the Fields, London. They have also produced helpful introductions to disability and mental health and the church.
Local councils and the Local Offer - The 2014 Special Educational Needs and Disability Code of Practice: 0 to 25 years means that Local Authorities must publish a Local Offer which sets out in one place information about the provision they expect to be available across education, health and social care for children and young people in their area who have SEN or are disabled, including those who do not have an Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP). These can usually be found by googling for the local authority name and 'local offer.'
Bristol and Bath Disability Network is a network of Christians in the local area who meet together four times a year to promote disability awareness and support one another
Deaf and Hearing Impairment:
Rev Cannon Gill Behenna is the Chaplain with the deaf community in Bristol Diocese as well as the national adviser for the deaf ministry. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org 01454 202483.
Signs of God is a Christian organization that promotes the use of BSL and also holds a national list of Christian interpreters
Go Sign is a charity which seeks to to make disciples of deaf and hearing signers
Open Ears is a fellowship for hard of hearing and deaf Christians, primarily those who communicate orally assisted by hearing aids and lip reading. 01425 615 215.
Torch Trust for the Blind is a Christian charity which provides resources and activities for blind and partially sighted people worldwide. There are several local Christian fellowship groups and book groups. They also run the ‘journey with’ programe which supports those who have recently lost their sight. 01858 438260. There are a number of Torch Trust groups running in the Bristol Diocesan area which are listed here.
RNIB (Royal National Institute for the Blind) is a good starting place for resources and advice for making things accessible to people who are blind or partially sighted. 0303 1239 999.
Prospects is a Christian charity that support, advises and equips local churches in providing ministry for people with learning disabilities. It also supports adults with learning difficulties to live independently. There are a number of Prospect ministry groups within the Diocese. Prospects is now a part of Livability. The local co-ordinators are Myles and Cath Pilling they can be contacted at email@example.com. There are a number of Prospects Groups operating within the diocese.
Incredible Kids provides a safe place for families with children who have special needs to come together and spend quality time as a family. They currently run weekly play sessions in Bristol.
The Kairos Forum for people with Intellectual or Cognitive Disabilities (KFICD) seeks to highlight and respond to the spiritual and religious needs of people with disabilities through facilitating communities of belonging both within the church and in the secular world. 01883 372114
L’Arche is an international federation of communities for people with learning disabilities. 01535 656186
Faith and Light is a Christian Association which includes people with learning disabilities or difficulties and their families and carers. It is made up of local Faith and Light communities which are groups which usually meet monthly for worship and fellowship. The only local community at the moment is in Portishead.
ASNA(Adventist Special Needs Association) supports people living with special needs or disabilities. They also provide breaks for families and carers and some useful resources. 01491 821103.
DCF Premier Workshop Trust is a setting where adults with learning disabilities and/or physical disabilities can focus on their ability to undertake work that is meaningful and stimulating. Through activities and occasional outings they try to ensure that members have the same opportunities as others.
Abundant Life for All (ALFA) this newly formed Christian community aims to help people with learning disabilities find new skills and work together to help others in a supportive environment. Their first project is a training lunch for elderly and/or isolated people which is staffed by people with learning disabilities. Their long-term aim is to set up a supportive, Christian residential community for people with a range of abilities.
There are a few bibles which have been specifically developed for people with learning disabilities and difficulties:
The NIrV Accessible Bible is a new edition available from Biblica.
Easy Read Version - available on Biblegateway or to purchase.
Dyslexia Friendly St Mark's Gospel available from the Bible Society
The Easy English Bible is available on line and includes a set of commentaries.
Church of England provides a ‘Supporting Good Mental Health guide’ – a comprehensive resource on mental health.
Premier Mind and Soul, a Christian organization run by professionals and people with experience of mental health. Their website is full of useful resources.
Sidetracked is a Christian project which offers practical support for suffers of agoraphobia.
Autism and Asperger Syndrome
Diocese of Oxford produce a resource about welcoming people with autism and asperger syndrome
National Autistic Society is the leading UK charity for people with autism and Asperger Syndrome and their families and friends. They offer a wealth of information and have a help line. 0117 974 8400.
Grants UK is a non-profit website on Grants, focusing especially on grants for disabled people.
Bristol Dementia Friendly Churches toolkit and resources. These ecumenical resources have been developed by Bristol Churches Together to support Churches in becoming dementia friendly.
Dementia Action Alliances (DAA) each area has a DAA which will be able to tell you what is happening in your local area. Churches running dementia friendly sessions are encouraged to tell their DAA what they are doing so they can add it to their calendar of local events.
Alzheimer's Society provide a wealth of resources and training around dementia
Dementia Friends is an initiative by the Alzheimer's Society which aims to change peoples' perception of dementia. Dementia Friends awareness sessions last an hour and are free. The Disability Adviser - Alice Kemp - can deliver these for churches.
The Gift of Years and Anna Chaplaincy is an initiative set up by the Bible Reading Fellowship. The Gift of Years provides resources for the spiritual journey of older people and the Anna Chaplaincy is one of these resources.
These are some of the books and publications that may be helpful if you would like to explore any of the issues around disability, accessibility and inclusion further.
Guides and Other Church Resources
Be a Roofbreaker by Through the Roof - a good basic introduction to accessibility. It has clear information about the challenges encountered by people with a range of disabilities.
A Welcoming Place - Autistic young people in church by Through the Roof - this is an excellent introduction and practical guide. Much of it is relevant to adults as well.
The Enabling Church Course - A small group course about disability with a variety of resources.
Small Group Study Guide on Disability from Inclusive Church
More than Welcome A new resource from Livability aimed to help churches in becoming more inclusive
A Guide to Supporting People with Dementia in the Local Church from the Dementia Trust
The Bible, Disability and the Church: a new vision of the people of God by Amos Young. A theological study of disability aimed at church leaders and written from the perspective of having a brother with Downs Syndrome.
The Enabled Life: Christianity in a disabling world by Roy McCloughry. Roy is the disability adviser for the National Church and this book is a good introduction to issues around theology and disability
The Disabled God: Towards a liberatory theology of disability by Nancy Eisland
Disability: The Inclusive Church resource by John Hull. This short book offers an accessible grounding in disability theology whilst at the same time offering practical insights and suggestions.
Accessible Gospel, Inclusive Worship by Barbara J Newman. A practical and imaginative resource about creating accessible worship in the context of spiritual formation.
Articles, Film Clips, Blogs etc
Accessible Worship - Vineyard Church article about accessible worship and music
Equivalent Experience: Keys to truly accessible worship spaces - thought provoking article about church design
Being Disabled in the New World of Genetic Testing - a fascinating article written by the parents of a child with Down's Syndrome around genetic testing.
Calling from the Edge - A booklet celebrating Inclusive Church's first five years of disability conferences.
A Place to Belong: Disability and the Church A series of short films about disabled Christians' experiences of church which was commissioned for the 2018 Disability Conference at Lambeth
The Mighty: What I'd like my church to understand about chronic illness an interesting blog about being in church with an unseen disability.