Accessibility Is Another Word for Hospitality
by Lynn Swedberg
Since many United Methodist churches were built before accessibility became an important concern, some lack basic features that allow persons with disabilities to participate. Even in churches constructed after the passage of the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), some parts of the church building, including the chancel, may not be accessible for all. While disability-friendly changes usually can’t be made overnight, given time, most churches can become functionally accessible. Besides, not all helpful changes require financial support.
Some United Methodist congregations are intentional about opening their buildings, hearts, and ministries to people with disabilities. Members of these churches understand that accessibility is just another word for hospitality. Taking the steps necessary to accommodate all potential worshipers is a means of making sure that all people will find a welcome. Fully accessible congregations also realize that people with disabilities—who may have experienced exclusion from faith communities in the past—offer diverse gifts and viewpoints that will enrich the church as a whole.
Ways to Communicate Welcome
Ascertaining whether or not a church is welcoming begins when a potential visitor who has some level of disability checks out the facility. Someone who uses a wheelchair needs to know whether she or he can negotiate parking, get in the door, participate in worship, and use restroom facilities. Since many people start with an Internet search, a church should list its accommodations on its website. For example, a church in Nashville, Tennessee, has an accessibility logo on its home page, with instructions to click for more information. The specifics read as follows: “Belmont UMC is committed to making our church a comfortable, accessible place for everyone. We continue to work toward complete accessibility and currently offer accessible parking spaces, entry ramps, elevators to upper and lower floors, wheelchair-accessible restrooms, assisted-hearing devices, and large-print Bibles, hymnals, and worship bulletins. For additional information, please contact the pastor.” Elsewhere on the site, the welcome statement includes this affirmation: “We believe every person is of sacred worth and created in God’s image. We commit to Jesus’ example of inclusive love and care, along with intentional hospitality toward persons of every…physical or mental ability.”
Other website indicators that persons with disabilities are welcomed include a link to the congregation’s committee for disability advocacy and photos showing children and adults with visible disabilities taking part in congregational activities. The children’s ministry link states that all children are welcome and names a person to contact who can arrange needed accommodations. The website itself is accessible to people who are blind and use screen readers. It also provides AltText descriptions of pictures or graphics and the choice of accessing information in document format in addition to any pdf files posted.
First Impressions Count
Another point of entry to a church is the parking lot. Moran UMC in Spokane, Washington, recently repaved and reconfigured its parking lot so that the accessible spaces are highly visible and adjacent to the front door. Especially in northern climates, people using wheelchairs should not have to cross traffic, move behind parked cars, or dodge piles of snow. When the designated parking area cannot be seen from the street or from the parking lot entrance, directional signs to guide visitors to the accessible parking and church entrances are helpful.
One of the more frequent accessibility grant requests is for help with funding and installing power-assisted door openers. While not required by the ADA, these doors exemplify universal design. The doors not only help worshipers in wheelchairs but also help parents pushing strollers, persons using walkers, and teachers carrying classroom supplies to enter the church building with ease. Curb cuts are another example of universal design that benefits all of us.
Once inside, signage pointing to elevators, the sanctuary, the nursery, and accessible restrooms conveys a welcome to the first-time visitor. Whether a disability is temporary (such as a sprained ankle) or long-term (such as a heart or lung condition), finding the most direct route with the fewest steps can be crucial for participation. A printed building directory helps people orient themselves, but disability-friendly churches also post trained greeters at entrances to welcome guests, offer directions, and answer questions. This is especially important for a person with low vision coming to the church for the first time and needing an orientation to the building.
Upon entering the church, people with disabilities look for indicators that they are expected. Coat racks should include a lower rod or hooks where children and people using wheelchairs can easily hang their coats. University Park UMC in Denver, Colorado, designed a disability kiosk and placed it just outside the sanctuary as a place for people to pick up helpful tools to make their participation in worship easier.
Depending on the church, such tools may include assistive listening devices, page magnifiers, and large-print bulletins and hymnals. Copies of the sermon may be provided so parishioners with hearing loss can read what they miss. When members use alternate-format bulletins, the Braille bulletin and Braille hymnal pages are made available. Other congregants can access the order of worship electronically by scanning a QR code (a graphic that allows a smart-phone user direct access to a website) that links them to the document. This technology allows a person who is blind to follow along on a tablet device, using a headset to hear what the screen reader is saying.
Sanctuary and Chancel Access
Establishing full access to the sanctuary takes careful thought and planning. Chicago Temple First UMC faced significant obstacles, having a sloping floor and a high chancel platform. The congregation solved this problem by raising the sanctuary floor and building a side ramp for chancel access. The church added pew cuts in four different places, giving congregants in wheelchairs a choice of seating locations. At each cut-out area, the ends of two pews were cut, rather than just one, so that a person using a power wheelchair could enter the space and then turn to face forward. Making sure that people who remain seated can see the pulpit is a factor in deciding where to install pew cuts. If space is limited, chairs with armrests can be set in these open sections and removed by the ushers when wheelchair access is needed. In the Chicago remodel, sanctuary lighting was increased 500 percent and a new sound system was installed.
If the chancel is not accessible and a pastor or liturgist who happens to use a mobility device cannot lead in worship, the church is technically not barrier-free. Some congregations get around this barrier by moving the lectern and worship leaders to the floor of the sanctuary. Other churches lack the space to build a ramp to the chancel and have opted to install a vertical platform lift instead. Rose City Park UMC in Portland, Oregon, and Shepherd of the Hills UMC in Laguna Niguel, California, are among churches that have installed lifts so that people who cannot negotiate stairs can still participate in praise teams, choir, and all other parts of worship leadership.
Restroom and Fellowship Access
Restroom access is mandatory—preferably in locations close to the sanctuary and fellowship hall. Many churches, such as University Park in Denver, opt to add a family or companion unisex bathroom that meets ADA code and allows room for a person in a power wheelchair to turn around. The separate room makes it possible for a person needing assistance from a caregiver of the opposite sex to do so without embarrassment. Accessible stalls in larger, multi-stall restrooms are still needed for persons using walkers, recovering from surgery, or using smaller manual wheelchairs. On larger church campuses, more than one accessible restroom is necessary so that people with limited walking tolerance can find one nearby.
As United Methodists, we value our potlucks and coffee hours as times of fellowship, enabling us to get better acquainted. This space, too, must be accessible to all. Arrange tables so that there is enough room—at least 36 inches—for a person using a wheelchair to get through. Have a variety of chairs, including a few with armrests, for people who have a hard time rising from low chairs. Have at least one open table or counter work surface in the kitchen where workers can sit to help out.
Food selection is more welcoming if people on restricted diets can find something they are allowed to eat. Manito UMC in Spokane, Washington, has worked to intentionally offer a variety of treats and has developed a labeling program so that members know which foods fit their diets. Be alert to the presence of members with potentially life-threatening reactions to foods such as peanuts, and educate members to leave those foods at home.
Fellowship can take place beyond the building as well as inside. If some fellowship events happen outdoors, make sure that your sidewalks and other landscaping features are accessible. When planning retreats or outings, research to ensure that the facilities can be used by members with mobility restrictions. Small groups or committees that meet in members’ homes should select residences that are at least “visitable.” In such houses a person can access the meeting space and use a restroom without having to negotiate steps.
So how does a church decide to become more accessible? The Inclusive Ministries committee of Rose City Park UMC in Portland, Oregon, developed an access matrix. It was based on input from many people who looked at their building and their practices to see how welcoming they were. These people toured their facility multiple times, looking at it from different angles and points of view. One result was the installation of the platform lift for chancel access. The committee also holds annual disability-awareness classes. To meet other needs, the congregation partners with “Ride Connection” to offer weekly transportation to and from church, using a van owned by an agency that does not need it on Sundays.
The Disabilities Connections team at Morningside UMC in Salem, Oregon, partners with the trustees, who see their job as making building improvements for everyone’s benefit. When someone points out a problem—such as replacing hard-to-manipulate restroom doorknobs with lever handles and removing automatic door closers that do not meet ADA guidelines—the team and trustees take action as soon as possible. One member who uses a wheelchair commented approvingly that, after her first visit, pew cuts were completed during the week and ready by the following Sunday. Accessibility improvements are not voted on because they are not considered optional. Instead, they are prioritized and accomplished as soon as plans and funding can be arranged.
The Disability Ministries Committee of The United Methodist Church offers resources and consultations to move congregations forward in their goal of hospitality for all. If your congregation wants to be more actively engaged, contact us at UMDisability@gmail.com about forming a partner ministry and reaching out to churches in your area to help them with the process. Together we can bring about the day when the doors of The United Methodist Church are open to and welcoming of persons of all abilities.
Lynn Swedberg serves as the Disability Consultant for the DisAbility Ministries Committee of The United Methodist Church through Global Ministries/UMCOR Health. She is an occupational therapist in private practice with a passion for church accessibility and inclusion. Lynn lives in Spokane, Washington, and is a member of Manito UMC. This version of this article was first published in New World Outlook magazine May-June 2014 issue.
Adapted in part from articles in The Voice of the United Methodist Disability Connection, Vol. 2, No. 1, and Vol. 2, No. 6.
An example of pew cuts, making space for wheelchairs, at Chicago Temple, First UMC, Chicago, Illinois.
Photo: Lynn Swedberg
An example of easily identifiable accessible spaces at Moran UMC, Spokane, Washington.
Photo: Lynn Swedberg
Artwork by Susan Glattstein
The Disability Kiosk at University Park UMC in Denver, Colorado. Featured are large-print bulletins and hymnals, and devices to aid reading and hearing.
Photo: Lynn Swedberg
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