My Research on Disability and Churches

…in Plain English

A while ago, there was a twitter #phdchat discussion about the importance of putting our research into plain English, so that everyone can understand what we research. This page was the result.

My PhD research was about the experiences of disabled Christians.

Naomi presenting at a conference, with a booklet on the research.

I listened to 30 disabled church-goers about what church is like for them: their experiences of being included in churches, and their experiences of exclusion from churches. I also took part in church work organised by and with disabled people, including the annual Inclusive Church/St Martin-in-the-Fields conference on disability and churches.

Definitions

  • Disability: The research involved Christians with a range of different impairments. It included people with physical and sensory impairments (including blind and Deaf people), people with chronic illnesses, neurodivergent people (such as autistic people), people with mental health problems and people with learning difficulties.
  • Exclusion from churches means different things to different disabled people. It may involve physical access barriers. It might mean attitudes towards disabled people in churches that are painful for them, preventing them from attending. It often involves church cultures and ‘ways of doing church’ that disabled people can’t easily fit. Or it can mean discrimination due to disability.

Context

Before I went out to talk to people, I looked at theories of disability in Christianity, so I could understand the context of Christian thought about disability. I looked at the history of churches and disability. For this background, I was interested in ideas of healing and the body, and how these might relate to disabled people’s self-image and identity. For example, there are stories in the Gospels where Jesus heals people. I wanted to know how disabled people in churches feel about these stories and how they are used in churches. 

Participatory Research

I wanted my research to be as participatory as possible. This research approach tries to ensure that disabled people can have meaningful participation in research. Academic research on disability has often been done by people who know nothing about what it’s like to be disabled. Disability studies has tried to change that, by understanding disabled people as the experts on disability. I worked with a group of disabled Christians who helped me understand if I was asking the right questions in the research. I went back to my research participants to ask their opinions on what I was writing. And I applied for funding to pay everyone who took part in the research, as disabled people are far too often asked to give something for nothing.

This kind of research also involves a principle of ‘giving back’ to the community being researched – in this case, to disabled Christians and churches. As a trainer, campaigner and researcher, I hope there will be things I can do to ‘give back’ to disabled Christians and their churches, and to share my findings widely. For example, the first place I shared findings from the research was the user-led conference on disability and Christianity at St Martin-in-the-Fields. I also offer training to churches about how to make their churches more accessible for disabled people. 

Findings

This accessible booklet about my research is the first research ‘output’ – I wanted my first report on the research to be for disabled Christians, not academics.

I’m very grateful to all the people who have generously shared their time with me and taken part in the research. Their stories are immensely valuable in the conversation about disability, Christianity and churches.