Church Online and Disabled People: Locked Down or Opened Up?

Recently I’ve been discussing and writing about the shift of churches to online spaces, and how this impacts disabled Christians.

Shut In, Shut Up, Shut Out

I took part in the Shut In, Shut Up, Shut Out series, where disabled people have been talking about our experiences of church, led by Fiona MacMillan. I talked about Disabled People, Coronavirus and Church with Fiona and Rachel Noel. I’ll share the rest of this series below – it’s been brilliant.

And we moved this year’s disability conference to an intentionally online format (a partnership between St Martin-in-the-Fields and Inclusive Church, this year hosted by HeartEdge). Impacts of lockdown and COVID-19 were a recurring theme this year. I’ll share recorded material soon.

Conference Presentation

These are the slides from a presentation I gave in July, at The Conference at the End of the World, organised by alt-ac.uk. This inclusive conference was the perfect venue to share some new research I’ve been doing on the topic, building on my PhD research with disabled Christians. Here’s a summary.

I started by asking why disabled people should matter to churches during the pandemic. COVID-19 lockdowns and policies have had an unequal impact on disabled people, with reports of increased health and social inequalities during the pandemic. Disabled people have experienced:

  • Food shortages and difficulty obtaining food under shielding and lockdown conditions.
  • Problems getting their medication and medical equipment.
  • Difficulty getting PPE, for those who need carers to come into their homes.
  • Problems accessing information – with a lack of Easy Read and British Sign Language information about COVID and lockdown regulations.
  • Concerns about rationing of treatment using frailty scales that might leave disabled people without care, together with reports of ‘Do Not Resuscitate’ orders placed on disabled people against their will, leaving disabled people feeling that our lives are less valued than those of others.
  • Failures of support from the social care system.
  • Increasing psychological distress for many, including neurodivergent people.

I helped to write one of these reports about inequalities during the pandemic, with Sisters of Frida.

Disabled people have died in disproportionate numbers as a result of the pandemic. Two-thirds of people who have died of coronavirus were disabled. People with learning disabilities are 6 times as likely to die of coronavirus as others, and 30 times more likely if they are in the 18-24 age group. And we were already an oppressed group of people – in 2016 the UN found the UK guilty of grave and systematic human rights violations against disabled people. These inequalities should concern churches that care about social justice.

My next point was about disabled people and church. My PhD research showed that churches are places where disabled people are often excluded, because we cannot ‘fit’. This can be because of physical barriers, barriers to understanding, social barriers, structural issues like starting times of services, direct ableism, or church cultures that force us to the edges of church life. What’s worse, others speak for us and about us in churches – our own voices are rarely heard when disability is talked about.

This is one reason why, for many years, many disabled Christians have been part of a growing movement of disabled people’s online churches. Online churches are becoming places where we can meet together, speak from lived experience, and create church cultures where we can come as we are. If you can’t attend a 10am service because fatigue means you need to sleep in late, you can stream it later. If you can’t easily communicate verbally, there are twitter discussions and recorded video content to share in. If you can’t use inaccessible transport or leave your bed, church can come to you. If you need to rock and stim during the service, you might feel safer to do this in your own home.

“The online space is sacred. It’s just different.”

Katie Tupling, founder member, ‘Disability and Jesus’, and disabled priest

In response to the pandemic and lockdowns, many churches have moved online. This happened very quickly – disabled people pointed out that churches could have offered remote services a long time ago.1 Online church is not new, but there have been arguments for many years about whether going to church online is as ‘real’ as going to church in person. I’ll leave debates about ecclesiology to the theologians, but the arguments about the legitimacy of church online continue.

Yet many disabled people who have been excluded from churches could finally take part, when churches moved online. For some, it felt as if everyone was suddenly encountering the access difficulties that disabled Christians have always experienced. When a problem affects the majority, the majority finally notices it. The result was ‘accidental access’ to church, for many of us. Some have been able to participate after years of not being able to leave their homes, now that church comes to them. Others have found new, more accessible ways to engage with other Christians.

“I was taking part as much as anybody was at that point… I was actually part of them [the church] again.”

Siobhan, who cannot attend her church in person due to autism inaccessibility

Some of these disabled people have seen new ministries open up for them, through their technical skill, or because they now have real ways of taking part in church.

“I’m the most techie person in the church…. That means I’ve got us online. I’ve been facilitating and running services and helping other people be involved… People record Bible readings and… [we] get 92 year olds on Zoom. You name it, we’ve done it.”

Emma, who lost most of her sight and mobility while serving as a minister

But mainstream churches have not all been happy to move online, and this has impacted disabled Christians who meet and worship via the internet. As Katie Tupling, founder member of Disability and Jesus, points out, “Mainstream church was reluctantly dumped into the online space… There was a huge influx of hurt privilege” into online spaces that had previously been empowering for many disabled Christians. Offers of help by disabled online practitioners were often not taken up by churches moving online. Not all churches were interested in making online services accessible to disabled people.

And now many churches are very keen to move back to the building. This is worrying some disabled people, whose worlds have opened up as a result of churches moving online. They are asking what happens to them when online services disappear. Will churches learn from the new involvement and ministry of disabled people, or will they forget us again?

“Lockdown brought with it both opportunity and challenge to the church… Now as restrictions ease there is a fear within me that churches will go back to “business as usual” and the eagerness to return to “proper church” will leave many of us – who for the last four months have been more engaged than ever – back where we started.”

Emily Richardson, disabled Christian & church communication coordinator

The challenge for the church now is not to lose the new ‘accidental accessibility’ that has opened up to disabled people during this period, when churches have had to think differently about how to worship remotely. As Emma Major put it:

“Will the good intentions of accessibility still be in place in a years time when most of your congregation are back in their seats?  Or will we be the invisible again?  Most people who have been excluded from churches for years have little hope that inclusivity will improve.”

Emma Major, disabled minister, Church Times, May 2020

It’s also important to remember that not all disabled people can access church online. Digital exclusion is a real problem for disabled and older people, especially the many who live in poverty. Other people can’t engage with online church because it’s inaccessible to them in other ways. The fight for access to physical church services goes on – online church is only one part of the solution.

To end, let me direct you to some of the wonderful activities of a growing disabled Christian movement. We’re doing exciting things together. It’s now up to churches whether they want to share in this exciting movement, or if disabled people will stay pushed to the margins of church… and society.

Resources

The Shut In, Shut Out, Shut Up series. These discussions have been devised and hosted by Fiona MacMillan, in conversation with disabled and neurodivergent Christian advocates, activists, academics and church leaders.

Disabled People’s Online Churches, Groups and Events

The Living Edge conferences. Since 2012, this annual conference has been a space for disabled and neurodivergent people to gather, to resource each other and the church. It’s for us, rather than about us – we are a majority of the conference planners, speakers and delegates. Read more at the Inclusive Church website.

You might also be interested in my Church Times article from May 2020, on disabled people and church in lockdown.

Feel free to add more resources in the comments.

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1 Katie Tupling of Disability and Jesus argues that the current shift of church services onto the internet is “church online,” where churches move their services wholesale onto the internet. In contrast, “online church” is designed to be held on the internet.

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