Finding faith

Dobson reports on how access to a religious community can provide
social support for people with learning difficulties and disabled

acting out scenes from Christ’s life on earth, Paul Lehrian says he
has been brought closer to the God that he believes gives meaning
to his life. Lehrian is 32 and has learning difficulties, but he is
by no means a passive member of the church to which he belongs. He
takes an active role, getting involved in drama and musical
activities, serving on the altar and sometimes working with his
priest as a Eucharistic minister.

religious community to which he belongs – St Joseph’s Pastoral
Centre in Hendon, North London – has worked hard to make sure that
he can participate as fully as he wishes, but with no undue

is fortunate because he has access to the spiritual life of his
choice, but for many people with learning difficulties, access,
choice and participation in a faith community are not

the obstacles to participating in a spiritual life can be purely
practical – residential homes, for example, that fail to provide
prayer mats or diets suitable to the individual’s needs, or homes
not having staff available to take a resident to church or other
faith community regularly.

Chinnery of People First, a self-advocacy organisation offering
information, training and consultancy by people with learning
difficulties, points out obvious elements such as poor access for
wheelchairs. She says that churches and other religious communities
are often simply inaccessible to people with learning

“Churches should, for instance, make doors wider and bibles and
prayer books easier to read. They should have more pictures and the
print should be larger,” she says. Chinnery is also concerned about
the plight of those people with learning difficulties who are
living in residential homes, and points out that where staff are
overstretched, residents are unlikely to be given the opportunity
to take a full part in a religious life.

According to Brian McGinnis, special adviser to Mencap and a
practising Christian, practical problems are never insurmountable,
if enough thought is put into accommodating the specific needs of
the individual.

He cites
the example of his own Anglican church where a woman with profound
and multiple disabilities, who cannot speak, read or write, but who
has a deep religious faith, has been confirmed and now receives

disabilities mean that she has had to be fed through a tube, but
the difficulties surrounding the administering of the bread and
wine were overcome by the wafer being soaked in wine and then just
touched against her lips,” he says.

Alongside the practical aspects of involvement runs a deeper
concern about whether people with learning difficulties are able to
make their own decisions about the meaning of the spiritual life
they become involved with; whether they are exercising choice; or
whether assumptions are being made by families or carers, without
adequate recognition of the individual’s own wishes.

says that religious communities can offer much that is beneficial
to people with learning difficulties, but he is aware of the
complexities of the issuessurrounding choice and

person with a learning difficulty may never reach the point of
decision-making. I don’t think there is an answer because it is
part of a much wider issue than one of spirituality. It goes into
the whole business of someone who may be living with their family
exercising choice over many aspects of their life, including the
friends they choose and where they go,” he says.

Simons, senior research fellow at the Norah Fry Research Centre in
Bristol, emphasises that for people who often find themselves at
the margins of society, taking part in the life of a faith
community can be a positive route to social inclusion, although he
too sees complex issues surrounding full participation.

perspective would be that if you are interested in issues
surrounding inclusion and community, then churches form an
important part of community. They are a useful resource that needs
to be thought about because they are a way of enabling people to
take part in a community,” he says.

He adds:
“Finding instances where people have connections with each other is
the critical thing, and it is obvious that churches are places
where that connection can be made. Being a member of a faith
community may be useful for someone with learning difficulties. The
spiritual dimension may be more complex and hinges on their ability
to make real choices and the capacity to become a full member of
the church.”

One of
the concerns of some practitioners is that people with learning
difficulties may be vulnerable to undue influence or, in extreme
cases, abuse. It is argued, for example, that they may be more
susceptible to being pressurised into joining a sect or religious
group that they do not fully understand. But other practitioners
argue that this kind of group is more interested in people who have
money or who are able to earn money.

Lehrian’s church encourages people with learning difficulties to
participate fully in the life of the church. A key feature of its
services is that they use symbolism as a way of including those who
find complex language difficult to understand.

is more than happy with his own experience at St Joseph’s. “I go to
church every Sunday and attend St Joseph’s Pastoral Centre two days
a week. It helps me to relax and makes me feel calm and not
worried. It helps me keep up my good spirits. I love the music,
especially the organ. I want to keep my faith going for ever and
ever and ever,” he says. CC

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