IC Story: Naomi Lawson Jacobs

I’ve always found churches difficult places to be myself. I’m disabled and neurodivergent, and I came out as bisexual in the early 2000s. Gradually, it became easier to find churches that were inclusive of LGBTQIA+ people, thanks to the work of Inclusive Church. But I continued to feel like a ‘problem’ in churches, as a wheelchair user with a chronic illness. Access was difficult. Attitudes were just as excluding. And as an autistic person, I have always struggled with the neurotypical ways in which churches ‘do church’. Even today, it’s far from easy to find churches where I’m not asked to leave disability or neurodiversity at the church door.[1]

By 2010, I had left the church, finding it too traumatic to stay. But that was when I started a PhD exploring the experiences of disabled Christians. Through that research, I came across the Inclusive Church/St Martin-in-the-Fields annual conference on disability and church, organised by Fiona MacMillan and other disabled people. That first conference was a revelation – a moment of true belonging. Fiona often tells the story of how I arrived late (well, I do have ADHD!) and was amazed to find that all my access needs were enabled. Never before had I been to a conference where I did not have to choose between a break-out group meeting in a quiet space and another in a mobility-accessible space, but was offered both at once! Finally, I had found a disability-affirming faith community, where I did not have to pretend I wasn’t disabled or neurodivergent to make others more comfortable.

It’s particularly important to me that the IC disability conference is a disabled-led space, when there are so few of these in churches. The conference has shaped so much of the disability theology that I draw on in my research. But my relationship with the conference is not just academic. It has become church for me. A community of disabled and neurodivergent Christians now meets online regularly, between conferences, celebrating our differences and supporting each other in our struggles. We are church together, on the edge.

I sat on the organising committee of the disability conference for several years. I stepped back to make time for co-writing a book on disabled people’s experiences of churches, with Emily Richardson. We were privileged to share the story of the disability conference in the book, among many other stories of exclusion and belonging by disabled people, and their calls for disability justice in churches.

Inclusive Church enables affirming spaces like the disability conference, where we can bring our lived, embodied experiences of disability and faith – our whole selves. But I don’t want our community to stay on the edge. I want to see more churches where marginalised people can come to church just as we are, without being asked to leave any part of ourselves at the door. For disabled people, that dream is still far from a reality. But the work of Inclusive Church is encouraging the church to do better on disability, neurodiversity, and other forms of oppression that no one should face in Christian communities.

[1] A phrase used by storyteller Sarah at the 2021 disability conference, whose theme was ‘(Still) Calling from the Edge.’ Sarah said “The [IC/St Martin’s disability] conference is one of the few places I’ve come across where I don’t have to leave a part of myself at the door, like a pair of dirty boots.”

Naomi Lawson Jacobs is a research consultant and disability equality trainer. They work with churches and other organisations to help them better understand disability and neurodiversity. Naomi is currently training to be an access auditor, and would welcome churches to get in touch if they would like free access advice. For many years Naomi sat on the planning team of the Disability Conference, a partnership between St Martin-in-the-Fields Church and Inclusive Church, where disabled people are the majority of planners, speakers and delegates – a space to gather to resource each other and the church.

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