I’m really excited to have interviewed Lynn McCann – we both have a heart for those with disabilities and enjoy writing! She shares with us her story, her work with those with learning difficulties and much more. Thanks Lynn for joining us here!
Tell us a bit about you and your faith journey!
I became a Christian quite dramatically. I had a tough time in my teenage years and by the time I was 21, I was a mess. I’d gone to teacher training college at 18 and in the summers I volunteered with MENCAP holidays and ended up at a Christian activity centre in North Wales. There I felt totally loved and accepted for being myself. I saw something in those Christians that I wanted in my life, and so one afternoon I sat on a window sill looking out at the mountains and the sea, and poured my heart out to God. He answered by giving me a feeling of being washed through, a physical feeling that was wonderful. He then sent me home with all the answers I needed to change the mess I was living in. A few weeks later he told me to go and see another student and I knocked on her door. As she opened it I blurted out “I’ve come to ask you how to follow Jesus” and despite her surprise, she led me to pray the believers’ prayer and I’ve followed Jesus ever since. That was 29 years ago (I’ve just turned 50) and I’ve never forgotten what Jesus saved me from. It fuels my passion for him and every day I am grateful for what he has forgiven me for and how he continues to love and lead me.
Steve is my husband and we’ve been married 27 years and we have two children, a daughter aged 23, who gets married next year, and a son 19, who just moved out to be nearer his work place in Manchester. We live in a Lancashire town and love the countryside and how near we are to the Lake District. I’ve been a teacher for 28 years, first in primary, then in a school for autistic children and now as an autism specialist teacher/consultant working for myself and with many different schools across the county.
You have a heart for supporting others with disabilities – what are you involved in with this and how did this develop?
I can only say it was God’s idea! I had my first experience with children with disabilities at high school when I volunteered to spend lunch times at a nearby special school playing with the children. I knew from that moment that is what I was meant to do. That’s why I trained to be a teacher and did every special needs option I could. When I started working at a school for autistic children I began to ask God how they could know him. As I prayed and learned about autism I could see that God was as accessible to them as he was to everyone, and lack of verbal language did not mean that people couldn’t know Jesus. What it meant for me is that I had to listen and learn new ways of communicating.
Whilst I couldn’t directly share the gospel at school, I asked God to show me how I could in other settings. He sent us to our local CofE church where they had a group for adults with learning difficulties and they wanted volunteers. That was the Good News Group, and 12 years later I’m still there – now as one of the leaders. I can honestly say it is the best expression of church that I have ever been in. We are a congregation which works together to learn about Jesus, to develop and grow our faith and fellowship together. The value of everyone is the same and God has taught us all about how we communicate, learn and worship together. I love it so much.
How can churches, schools and organisations better come alongside those with disabilities and be more inclusive?
I write about this a lot in my blog, but it essentially starts with acceptance and friendliness. Many people feel scared of approaching someone with a disability because they don’t know what to say, they are scared they might offend the person or they feel that they will find it hard to understand them and so they will feel embarrassed. Some people still think that people with disabilities aren’t capable of understanding Jesus and faith; a minority have a very patronizing and outdated views on people with disabilities such as ‘they have the mind of a 3 year old” – when they are 37!
If there are people with disabilities in your church (and if not, why aren’t there?!) then just get to know them. Smile and say hello, find out their name and use it. Ask what would make church more accessible for them. If they have a parent or carer with them ask them to show you how to communicate and never talk over the person with disabilities as if they are not there. Then you can think about making your whole church more disability friendly – but start with the people you have. If they are not in your church already (although there could quite well be people with hidden disabilities such as epilepsy, autism, ADHD, dyslexia etc) then find out where they are in your community.
What advice would you give to individuals and churches who would like to set up a disability ministry/outreach to those with disabilities?
I’m just starting a blog series on some questions to ask in this situation! However, practically you must start with prayer. Let God be involved from the start and show you where to look and what to research. The best place to begin is with your local community and spend time getting to know who lives nearby. Do you have a special school, adults in supported living, a day centre or families with children with additional needs who feel isolated and left out of church? Get to know your community by visiting, talking to the people involved and ask them what they would want from church.
Some simple things can be put in place such as a quiet area or sensory baskets for children with autism to start with. You may identify some training that you need for church workers. I’d also say remember that as a church you are there to share the message of Jesus and so think about how you might do this as the people you are inviting are one of the most unreached peoples in the world. Even if you do a toddler group or social group for adults, think about how you can teach them something about Jesus, the Bible and faith. Also get help from others who have done the same. There may be people nearby or in the growing online Christian disability networks that will be more than happy to help. The place I would start is by joining the Additional Needs Alliance on Facebook. They have a website too.
How can we best support the families and carers who we know that are looking after someone with a disability?
The best thing is probably to check in with them regularly. Be friendly and ask them how they are doing. Don’t assume you know how it is for them and don’t belittle their experiences by saying things like “I felt like that once”’ or “I’m sure it will get better”. And don’t offer advice unless you’ve been specifically asked for it. Nothing could be more maddening than someone saying “have you tried such and such…” Most families and carers have tried everything or don’t try certain things for very good reasons. They want friendship, laughter and care for them as carers. They want someone to notice if they haven’t been for a couple of weeks and to send them notices and information or recordings of sermons. And if you can build up a relationship that offers babysitting occasionally so they can have a break – even better.
Include them in a What’sApp group so they can fellowship with other Christians in their home church and make sure they have plenty of ways of talking to church people online to keep the relationships going. As a church help them feel part of the family by accepting all the noises and interruptions, smiling, welcoming and speaking to the child or adult with disabilities and asking them to sit with you. Don’t put pressure on families and carers to do things in church, unless they want to. They may be too exhausted and busy to do extra but may appreciate being asked if they’d like to contribute to some things occasionally. Ask them what would make church work for them and sort it out. Think about siblings and including them in your family’s activities to give them experiences that they may not access easily as a family.
How do you approach sharing the Bible with someone with autism or a learning difficulty?
Sharing the Bible should start with an appropriate version that the person can access themselves. There are lots of versions online such as the Easy English Version. Biblica has developed the Accessible Bible NIrV New Testament which we use a lot with those who can read – it also has an audio app. It uses shorter sentences, the verse numbers are at the side of the page, the font is bigger and the paper anti-glare. Each book has a summary of what the book is about and we find it really helpful.
For those who struggle to read then there are a variety of visual Bibles that are not too childish such as the Brick Bible, the Minecraft Bible and the Manga Bible. If that is what a person is interested in then use what they will engage with. With non-readers, we use visual symbols in the sequence of the text so that they can follow the structure of the story and point to each picture in turn. We also use ready made PowerPoints of many different Bible stories from . The thing to keep in mind is to have high expectations of God’s Word and the Holy Spirit to teach people through His word. Our job is to make it accessible and then to guide them through the Bible in small chunks, relating it to real life and explaining spiritual language in ways they can understand.
We need to listen to their questions and allow them to voice their doubts or confusions without patronizing them. Teaching them practical ways to pray and have a relationship with the God they cannot see is also important. One thing we find really useful is to have one key sentence each session. This is one truth that can be repeated and reinforced each session and tells us something about God’s relationship with us. This has helped us teach right through the Old and New Testaments over the years with our group of adults with learning difficulties, autism and other additional needs. It has been great to see their faith grow.
You have an award-winning blog – includedbygrace – when did you start blogging and what’s it about?
I started blogging in 2014 because I wanted to share something about what we were doing. At that time I was searching for information about making church accessible and discipling adults with learning difficulties and couldn’t find very much. I was beginning to get involved in the Additional Needs Alliance and the wider online community of people working to bring disability awareness into churches. I blogged about what I thought, what we had learned, and to give advice to other wanting to start an additional needs ministry in their churches. I have shared some of the ups and downs of running a group like ours and some teaching ideas we have tried. I had a break from it last year for various reasons, but I have just started to blog again with more up to date advice and resources. This year I want to write an “Includedbygrace” book based on the blog.
Is it possible to make a blog/website more accessible for those with autism and other learning disabilities?
Yes, and I’m looking into this myself. It’s best to start from the beginning whilst building a website, it’s a bit harder to adapt an existing website. In the UK accessibility in websites is covered by the Disability Discrimination Act. But here is a blog to help you get started in thinking about what you might do. Generally, easy navigation, clear links and content that is well written (in short sentences for example), clear language, and text descriptions for pictures can be a good start.
How can we be praying for your ministry?
I am hoping this next year will be a year of growth. I want to write my “included by grace” book and find a publisher. I want to find way to share some of the Bible teaching materials for adults with learning difficulties and autism that we have written for our group over the past 12 years. Please pray what format this might take. I’m not sure whether it will be through a website or booklets.
I also do training for churches about autism and about accessibility. Please pray we can find ways of giving our Good News Group members chances to get involved in doing this training with me so that they can share their gifts and experiences in their faith journey. They already get the opportunity to share, lead, serve and speak up in our weekly group – we want other people to get the chance to hear them too.
Pray also for the other churches across the country that are starting to look at how accessible to all they are and if they are starting up new ministries, then let those be fruitful. Finally, prayers for the support, funding and resources we need to do what God gives us opportunities to do would be much appreciated.
Lynn McCann is a Christian wife, mum of two just grown up kids and an autism specialist teacher by day. In her church she is part of a weekly congregation for adults with learning difficulties and writes, blogs and runs training courses about making churches accessible. She loves finding creative ways to communicate God’s love and his word. You can follow her through her blog ‘included by grace’, Facebook and Twitter.