Lockdown and making church accessible for additional needs

Written by Rachel Donne-Davis

Lockdown really doesn’t sound like a golden opportunity for promoting accessibility within church life; in fact it sounds like it would be hugely challenging for some. But in a wonderful example of God’s topsy-turvey kingdom, lockdown has created opportunities for learning and innovation both for now and in the future...

Livestream Life
Whilst livestream church might have thrown up some technological, practical, and theological (socially distanced communion) issues, it has provided opportunity for some accessible elements to be introduced into church services. For example:

  • BSL (British Sign Language) interpreted services have become available to a wider audience
  • Makaton signed songs and verses have been included in live streams
  • Practical guides on how to make your livestreams more accessible have been developed
  • Very clear service structure has really helped those who value routine. 

As lockdown has continued, many churches have chosen to pre-record their live streams, making them available for a long period after broadcast. This has given people the ability to control not only when but how they participate in online church. Some may be choosing to watch at a time that suits the rhythm of their day, or watching in bite size chunks in order to make the content more digestible.
Even the ability to turn the brightness or volume up or down is hugely helpful to some. Let’s be honest we’ve all had times when we’ve wanted to do that in physical church meetings. How much more must people who are particularly sensitive to sensory input want to do that!?

Somehow, it’s as if live streams have been seen as a safer way to experiment with accessibility, perhaps in a way that feels more manageable. Our hope is that it is something that grows and gets translated into physical church settings going forward.

New Style of Community
Alongside the more practical evidence of accessibility, livestreams have also provided a means of accessing church for people who weren’t able to attend physical services for a whole variety of reasons. There are husbands and wives who have been able to do church together for the first time in years because of chronic ill health, families who have been able to worship together from the safety and familiarity of their living room. I know how much of a blessing online church has been to these groups of people and I hope that churches can continue this we return to our new normal.

Pastorally, there was also a renewing of the awareness of the most vulnerable in our society and perhaps an expansion of who we consider that group to be. Many wonderful acts of kindness have been shared, people were reached out to, and community built in places where people had previously felt excluded. People felt included and noticed in a way that they hadn’t before.

Lockdown Projects
A number of wonderful lockdown projects have surfaced online which have also started a conversation about accessible church with a momentum which might not have happened otherwise. I spoke to Jess Thompson (Head of Accessible Church Ministry for New Wine) and asked her how she felt about this lockdown trend. She commented that she had: “seen an increase in the use of Makaton in church worship and videos of people worshipping in inclusive ways which have been really encouraging.”

One Lockdown project that I had the huge privilege of being involved with was The Makaton UK Blessing. Makaton is a unique language programme that uses symbols, signs and speech to enable people to communicate. It is used by over 100,000 children and adults in the UK, so it was the obvious choice when we explored the idea of creating a more accessible version of ‘The Blessing’. We were overwhelmed by the wonderful contributions sent in for the video. More so, we were touched by the personal stories of how people were able to engage with this video in a way that they wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise.

Another fantastic lockdown project was The Amazing Grace video produced for The Thy Kingdom Come Celebration. Thy Kingdom Come is a global call to prayer coordinated by the Archbishop of Canterbury. As part of their celebration service they included a number of accessible elements. The whole event was BSL interpreted and it included a version of the song Amazing Grace sung by Matt Redman with Makaton signers.

A lot of festivals also adapted their programmes so that they could be delivered virtually, including their accessible content. A huge amount of love and creativity went in to ensure these online festivals were as accessible to as many people as possible. Spring Harvest at Home were the first to do this in the very early days of lockdown, with subtitles and BSL interpretation for a lot of their content.
As virtual festivals became the norm more examples were seen. Suddenly accessible content was easily available, re-watchable and sharable.

What now?
Lockdown has fundamentally challenged what it means to really be a community and provided some very practical, tangible opportunities for accessible elements to be introduced to services. It’s given us a context for a conversation to be had about accessibility that just hadn’t had the same momentum before.
Now, let’s not stop as we open the doors to church buildings again. The reality is that church life is going to look quite different for some time to come. The gradual transition back into whatever that looks like will be as challenging as lockdown for some people.

Much has been learnt from lockdown and people have been drawn into a community that they have historically always felt on the edges of. It would be so sad for that to be lost as we start to meet again. So, keep creating, keep engaging and keep grappling with what it means to truly be a community that is accessible to all.

Let’s keep this conversation going...