Disability Working Group
An Interview with Members of the Disability Working Group on Raising Awareness in the Church
Raising Awareness of Disability in the Church
An interview with Audrey Tormey and James Clarke
The third Sunday of November has been designated Disability Awareness Sunday in the Church of Ireland. This year, it falls on Sunday 18 November. This has been a remarkable and inspirational year in raising the profile and increasing public awareness of people with disabilities as sportsmen and women competed with such commitment at the London 2012 Paralympic Games. There is, therefore, no better time to encourage greater involvement of people with disabilities in all aspects of life including that of the Church. The Revd Canon Dr Will Murphy, Chairman of the Church’s Working Group on Disability, says; ‘We don’t want to focus on disability for just for one day but hope that the day might lead to ongoing inclusion of people with disabilities of every kind in the life of the church community.’
Two other members of the Church’s Working Group on Disability, Audrey Tormey and James Clarke, spoke to Church of Ireland Press Officer, Paul Harron, about their own experiences of living with disability, their participation in parish life, and of their hopes for greater inclusion (this interview also appears in the 16 November edition of The Church of Ireland Gazette):
PH: Tell me about yourself and your involvement in church life as well as the Church’s Working Group.
AT: I come from Ballybrack, where I worship in St Matthias, Killiney. I grew up in the parish, the eldest of seven children, and have now returned to the Dun Laoghaire area and attend my ‘home’ church once again. I lost my sight in early childhood – between 11 months and four years old – as a result of retinoblastoma. When I was a child, my father learnt Braille and assisted me by transcribing the readings and hymns so that I could participate actively in worship – I was in the choir as a child. I am now today once again active in church life, including reading several times a year as part of the reading rota.
My background is second–level teaching and I currently teach part–time at the Rehabilitation Training Centre at NCBI (National Council for the Blind of Ireland) at Drumcondra – I tutor in literacy, numeracy, communications, French and English for those for whom it is not a first language. I’m a guide dog owner – which is a very efficient way of getting around – and I love walking and being out and about as well as reading and gardening. I also enjoy study and have completed the Archbishop’s Course in Theology.
I’ve just recently joined the Church’s Working Group and I feel strongly about heightening people’s knowledge and awareness of disability – and to see if we can find alternative ways of doing things.
JC: I am a dairy, beef and sheep farmer from Adare, Co. Limerick, with a wife, a son who farms with me here, a daughter who’s a physiotherapist in Singapore and a son who is in his final year at Trinity College, Dublin. I’m a member of the General Synod and I’ve been involved with the Working Group since it was formed, where I think we are gradually making progress.
I had an accident felling a tree in December 1991 and broke my spinal cord between T11 and T12, which means that I am paraplegic and use a wheelchair. I am, however, able to farm, doing everything apart from physical work which would require the use of my lower body. I am able to milk the cows and I drive an adapted tractor which I get in and out of with a winch and sling as well as an ATV (all terrain vehicle). I live about a quarter of a mile from the church in Adare (and not far from Bishop Trevor Williams!) and am involved in church life as parish treasurer and more generally, for example reading lessons every third or fourth Sunday.
PH: What are the main challenges facing people with disabilities and participation in church worship?
JC: Physical access to buildings continues to be something which needs addressed. Things have improved a lot since 1991 but there are still locations where wheelchair users are made too reliant on others for assistance. This can not only be inconvenient for the person with a physical disability and others who are required to assist but it can disempower people who would generally prefer to do things ‘under their own steam’ as much as possible. Generally speaking, I would prefer not to have to wait outside in the rain for someone to come and help me in to a church building if it is possible to have a ramp in place without too much disruption.
There will be some churches with many steps where it is not easy to overcome access but if it is only a step or two then a simple ramp should be a possible remedy. My own church is wheelchair friendly. I think a lot of churches don’t really do anything until a problem confronts them directly but really it shouldn’t have to be left to that point. Disabled people shouldn’t have to ring up a church in advance to see if it is accessible, the assumption should be that it is. I know it will depend very much on the type of church and its locality, but where a service is very busy, it is good not to be stuck behind a pillar in a wheelchair!
Also, we need to think about other disabilities such as the needs of those with hearing impairment. I do know of some people who don’t actually hear most of the service, so a loop system and information about that being available would help.
AT: Apart from overcoming attitudinal barriers and physical ones such as ramps – which are important – from my point of view one of the major challenges relates to providing access to information. Often parish notices are pinned up to notice–boards and a lot of church communication is very visual but without a verbal reference, too, people with sight impairment or blindness can easily miss out on what’s happening. I would like there to be more information about obtaining material in Braille, electronic and alternative formats. Also, good practice in communications would include the use of larger point sizes for printed materials and W3 standard for website screen readers.
In my own experience, the Rector emails orders of service to me in advance which allows me to transcribe these personally into Braille (using a Duxbury transcriber and embosser printer). I have books of the Bible in Braille, so if I have the readings in advance I can make reference to them, which is helpful.
PH: How do you feel churches could be more welcoming and accessible?
AT: We need to stress that people with disabilities are different but equal. Often we are not really given the same opportunities to participate actively in church worship, so for me it’s about a change of mindset: one that embraces difference, recognising that we are all unique and that we play an active role in society. I think that little steps, such as making bible study course materials and service sheets available in advance, for example, can make a big difference, giving us the opportunity for spiritual growth. People with disabilities generally don’t want to be overly reliant on others. We have to be proactive and make some effort too – we need to ask for help where we need it but also be as independent as possible at the same time.
My overriding message would be to encourage anyone who is nervous of approaching people with disabilities to take the step – the leap of faith – and make contact; ask someone if they would like assistance rather than remain in ignorance and ask ‘How can we best help empower you?’
JC: I have seen it from ‘both sides of the fence’ as it were, and I would agree with that completely: the message is don’t be afraid to ask!
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Church of Ireland Press Office
Tel: (028) 9082 8880 (from NI)
+44 (0)7787 881582
+353 (0)87 948 4412