15 December 2017

No Barriers to Learning!

raHow clever do you have to be to study theology? The very word ‘theology’ can put people off – it sounds as if you need to be a born academic to even begin. It comes from two Greek words; theos meaning ‘God’, and logia meaning ‘to study or learn’. Let me rephrase my question; how clever do you have to be to learn about God?

Belfast Bible College is passionate about encouraging people to learn about God in a way that they can access, understand and apply in their lives. This includes people with a learning disability.

Having a learning disability can affect an individual’s ability to use language and understand abstract concepts. A person with a learning disability can learn about God but they may not learn very much through the current teaching methods that churches and theological colleges use. For example, people with a learning disability may not understand Biblical stories not because they cannot learn but because a didactic lecture does not effectively make it real for them.

The Disability Discrimination Act of 1995 and the Equality Act of 2010 outline the legal requirements for all institutions in the UK to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ to buildings and services that they provide so that those with disabilities are not discriminated against. Belfast Bible College has made such reasonable adjustments including ramps and disabled car parking spaces. However it was not the letter of the law but a bigger vision on the part of the College’s leadership that suggested we enable people with a learning disability to study God with us. Such a task involved extra time, thought and resources. It was to be an experiment in going the extra mile with somebody that helped all involved to see the study of God as a fresh landscape. In February 2012, we launched the first Evening Class that was intentionally accessible for people with a learning disability. The ‘Who is God?’ course consisted of six, hour-long classes. The lessons made ample use of images and videos. The language used was simple; it tried to avoid jargon or analogies and involved some makaton sign language. Each lesson came with easy-to-read handouts that used large print, simple sentences, and pictures to summarise each lesson. Students also learned through drama, music, physical activity and had some fun dressing up. Not every attempt to explain things to the students was successful, and the teachers’ skills were often stretched – it was a learning experience for everyone!

Weekly assignments were optional and involved a choice of art, practical tasks or further reading and writing. For his assignment, one of the students chose to write Psalm 139:13-14 in his own words: ‘God made everything about me, God made my whole body and the bits you cannot see, give thanks because God made me and all God’s works are wonderful.’ Six adults with a learning disability completed the course with impressive joy, hard work and interest. Receiving her Certificate at the College graduation service one student said how much she enjoyed the course and wants to do another like it.

Next year Belfast Bible College is running two similar six-week evening courses:

“Who is Jesus?” (Nov 6th – Dec 11th 2012) and “What is the Church?” (Feb 19th – Mar 26th 2013). One vision for next year is for more people with a learning disability to hear about and access the courses. Also, more members of the student body at the College are to be involved in helping to run the course; acting as one-to-one classroom assistants for each student who wants one. This will enable more students at the college to appreciate how people with a learning disability understand God. We are not experts, this is still an experiment and we are treading our way down the extra mile together. Hopefully it is a journey that will better equip the Church to minister to and with people who have a learning disability.

WORDS Rachael Mackarel

Lecturer, Belfast Bible College For more information about any of the courses available at Belfast Bible College please e-mail info@belfastbiblecollege.com or phone 02890301551