Barrier-Free Belonging

Barrier-Free Belonging

Celebrating the gifts and ministry of Deaf, disabled and neurodivergent people in the church.

Barrier-Free Belonging

The life and ministry of the church is incomplete without the presence and participation of Deaf, disabled and neurodivergent people. The Church of England is committed to work for the welcome, inclusion and participation of all.

Bishop of London holding cup of tea talking to two women and a man in a wheelchair

(Photo above and banner photo at top of page: WAVE Church, London)

The Church of England is committed to removing the barriers that Deaf, disabled and neurodivergent people face within the church.  We want all people to be able to fully belong and participate in the life, mission and ministry of the church and we want all people to be able to flourish and grow as disciples and ministers, regardless of any physical, sensory or cognitive difference.

This work is facilitated and supported by the Committee for the Ministry of and amongst Deaf and Disabled People (CMDDP). This committee is appointed by the Archbishop’s Council to establish the vision and encourage the action that will place access and inclusion at the heart of the Church of England’s strategy for future growth. CMDDP and its subcommittees bring together a wide variety of Deaf, disabled and neurodivergent lived experience.

Making our buildings physically accessible and creating environments where people with a wide range of disabilities and differences can be present is important.  However, becoming a church that is fully accessible and inclusive and enables the full belonging and participation of Deaf, disabled and neurodivergent people is far more than installing ramps and accessible toilets.  It is about demolishing the ableist assumptions that disability is a deficit experience and removing the barriers to belonging and participation that Deaf, disabled and neurodivergent people often experience in the church.  We want to see the gifts of Deaf, disabled and neurodivergent people released to enrich all that the church is and is becoming.

To help do this, many dioceses have appointed Disability Advisers who can offer training, advice and support.  Check out diocesan websites or contact your bishop’s office or diocesan secretary to find out if your diocese has an adviser and find their contact information.  If you find that your diocese does not have a Diocesan Disability Adviser at this time, contact your bishop to ask why this is so.

Some thoughts and encouragements from the conference for Diocesan Disability Advisers, held in Leicester in November 2023. 

The CMDDP divides into two principal working groups. The Deaf Ministry Task Group (by Gill Behenna, the National Deaf Ministry Adviser) and the Disability Task Group (led by The Rt Rev Richard Atkinson, the Bishop of Bedford, who also chairs the CMDDP).

Deaf Ministry

Deaf people who use British Sign Language (BSL) as their first or preferred language belong to a community with a rich and varied culture.  Their worship, liturgy, teaching, and evangelism is all carried out in BSL.  In many parts of the country there are active Deaf Churches and a national organisation, Deaf Anglicans Together (DAT) keeps in touch with Deaf Christians across the UK. DAT also sends three representatives to the General Synod.

Many Deaf Christians who use BSL attend both a mainstream church, with BSL/English interpreters, and a Deaf-led Church where they can worship in their own language and enjoy fellowship without communication barriers.

The Deaf Ministry Task Group of CMDDP is a group that draws together Deaf and hearing people with expertise and experience in Deaf Ministry. All are fluent or native BSL users. The work involves research, making information available, monitoring the situation regarding Deaf ministry across the Church of England and making recommendations to dioceses. The group is facilitated by Gill Behenna, the National Deaf Ministry Adviser, who also acts as contact for this group.

Disability Task Group

The Disability Task Group focuses on removing the barriers faced by disabled and neurodivergent people within the church.  This often means challenging the endemic culture and attitudes that diminish disabled and neurodivergent people and fail to recognise that God calls all people to be disciples and many to be ministers within the church, regardless of the nature of their embodiment.  The DTG brings together lived experience of a wide variety of disability, neurodivergence and mental illness and places the voices and experiences of those with lived experience at the heart of its work.

The DTG encourages the exploration of vocation for disabled and neurodivergent people, seeks to develop disabled and neurodivergent leadership within the church, and encourages cultural and attitudinal change at every level of the church.  

We use the widest possible definition of disability.  Seeing our responsibility as that of advocating for and supporting all people who face barriers to belonging and participation in the church because of their embodiment or sensory or cognitive shape, regardless of whether they identify as disabled or not.  This includes encouraging a greater understanding of mental illness and the recognition that mental health and wellbeing support are important within the life and ministry of the church.

The DTG has a range of subcommittees and working groups.  These include a Mental Health Task Group and a Neurodiversity Task Group, as well as a group that encourages a more inclusive approach to liturgy and worship.  A group seeking ways of collecting statistics about disability within the church.  And a group exploring the dynamics of the cultural change necessary for the church to become more inclusive and enabling of all.

'Disability Matters' blog and newsletter

The CMDDP produce a ‘Disability Matters’ blog and newsletter three times a year. This includes reflections, information, stories and more:

Visit the 'Disability Matters' blog.

Sign up for the 'Disability Matters' newsletter.

There have been some notable events run by CMDDP in recent years. In particular, two conferences: one on disability in 2018, and another on mental health in 2019. Both were held at Lambeth Palace and hosted by Archbishop Justin Welby.

In 2021, Justin Welby established the Archbishops' Commission, ‘Reimagining Care.’ This explored the current landscape of social care, with particular reference to disability and ageing, and how this might be reimagined for the future. The Commission reported in 2023 and you can read their recommendations.

There are different language choices to use when it comes to talking about disability. On this page you'll see a range, to honour the fact that people have different preferences and perspectives. If you're interested in learning more about the language use surround disability then have a look at Roy McCloughry and Krista Ewert's paper on Disability Language and Diversity.

Thumbnail - Reimagining Care

Reimagining Care

The Archbishops Commission report on the future of social care. 

For any inquiry regarding disability please the use the form below to contact Malcolm Brown, Director of Mission and Public Affairs or Disability Project Manager Helen James. For any enquiry relating to Ministry to the Deaf Community, please choose Gill Behenna, Deaf Ministry Adviser.

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