First Steps: Accessibility Tips for Small Congregations

It was one of those special-occasion Sundays, when almost everyone turns out to take a place in a church pew. The altar sparkled with the communion set, and the banners hanging over the choir added their messages to the sanctuary in bright fabrics and vivid colors. One member of the choir, however, could not see the banners: Marcie, whose guide dog rested calmly under her chair, was focused on the Braille hymn sheets in her lap. Her voice rang out over the congregation, heard clearly by her husband, who was also blind. It was heard less clearly by the six people using the amplifying sets offered by the church, and her words weren’t quite understood by the young man in the front row, whose severe learning disabilities limited his comprehension—but never his love.

Of course, the three people in wheelchairs and the young man on crutches had no trouble understanding the musical message of God’s mercy, and I found myself wishing my daughter Rachel, who was in the nursery, could hear the beautiful music. As I looked out over the sanctuary, I wondered if we were unusual. Our normal attendance is well under two hundred people, yet on this bright Sunday, fourteen of us had some type of disability, from mild to severe. All seemed to be quite content with this church home.

Surprisingly, the church had made few physical changes to accommodate members who had a disability. We had added a covered ramp at the back door, removed the end of two pews to accommodate wheelchairs, and installed a lift on a set of steps leading from the Sunday school annex to the sanctuary. And we had bought Marcie a Braille hymnal. Small changes for small costs—yet the rewards had been huge. We had discovered something many smaller churches haven’t yet stumbled onto: It takes only a few steps to open up your church—and your church building—to a whole new group of God’s children.

The First Step

Since churches are not required to be ADA compliant, making a facility accessible for those with disabilities is a ministry; for many churches, the first step toward becoming more accessible involves spiritual changes, not physical. It is pure human nature to be wary of those different from us, and although Christians live a gospel of love and openness to all comers, welcoming and embracing believers who are disabled is not always easy. Such a change has to begin at the top, with a pastor or lay leader offering lessons on the disabilities, providing facts and dispelling myths. Sunday school teachers should be encouraged to talk to their classes about various disabilities, providing a forum for questions and tips for making all types of people feel welcome.

One of the prevailing myths among many Christians is that people with disabilities—especially those disabilities that involve mental or emotional levels of functioning—cannot understand the gospel message or are unable to participate fully in church activities. The truth is that not only do those with such disabilities still have a full range of emotions, including the need to receive love, but that God has a plan for all of us, whatever our capabilities, within the life of His church (see Jeremiah 29:11-14). And while it may be difficult to discern what effect the church and its ministry may have on the lives of people with some disabilities, the same can be said for most people with whom we share the love of Christ or invite into our church home. Only God truly knows what seeds have been planted in a heart.

My daughter, for instance, has a limited ability to express herself. Her disabilities prevent her from speaking, and most people look at her and assume that she has the mental and emotional capacity of a three-month-old, which is the level of her physical functioning. But Rachel is extremely social. She loves people, especially other children, and endless summer days at home, for instance, bore her to distraction. She likes a broad range of music, and she gets very excited about going places, especially school and church, letting me know that these activities are obviously meeting a need for her.

Since her health problems prevent her from going out a great deal, our church is her only social interaction outside of her school, and she adores some of the people there. She responds to their voices and touches with smiles broad enough to light up your heart. A number of studies have shown that activity and social interaction help children with special needs live longer, more content lives; so how could I deny these things to her? Equally, how could I deny the benefit they are to me? Why would a church resist making change that would welcome such people into their fold.

No one should assume anything about another person’s faith or desires for involvement in the church; we should ask. We should ask God for His guidance, and we should ask the person with the disability the two simplest questions of all: How can we help you? Would you like to help us?

All believers should be encouraged to ask such questions. Young children are especially curious about disabilities and beautifully honest in their reactions. Encourage them to question, and answer them on their level. When a three-year-old girl asked me why Rachel didn’t get up and play, I simply said, “Her legs don’t work.” She took this in for a moment, then said, “Would she like it if I played next to her?” For her, Rachel was just another kid, whose legs didn’t work, so play must be taken to her. Rachel’s presence in the church’s nursery has now populated our congregation with young people who have been up close and personal with someone with a disability.

Once an awareness and comfort level is present in the congregation, increasing physical accessibility is merely a matter of assessing and prioritizing goals. Think of it as the same three-step process toward ministry, which would work with any other outreach in the church:

  • Identifying the problems;
  • Providing solutions;
  • Making the changes known to the community.

Take a Quick Look Around

Take a look around and ask one overall question: What barriers exist in the church that prevent members with disabilities from participating fully in worship and the life of the church? Many people think accessibility only pertains to wheelchairs. Other disabilities, however, cover wide ranges of impairment, and barriers often exist where least expected. A dimly lit sanctuary, for instance, may be great for creating a worshipful atmosphere, but it may make lip-reading impossible for someone who’s hearing impaired. A large-print bulletin would help sight-impaired—or just those of us getting older—following the service easier. Clearing snow off an entrance ramp may be inconvenient, but even a few inches of snow can turn a ramp into an impassable mountain for someone in a wheelchair. A thorough assessment of the property should be taken and a list made of needed alterations. In addition, there are several ways that the worship service could be more inviting, which would involve no physical alterations at all.

Checklists are available from any number of organizations as well as online (see sidebar), and they may be available from your local ARC or government office. After an assessment is completed, the list can be prioritized according to the work and costs involved in each. Although the ADA recommends a priority on building entrances, followed by an improvement to primary interior spaces, bathrooms, then secondary spaces, a congregation may prefer to tackle some of the simplest changes first, just to get started. After all, the goal in improving accessibility is not perfection! It’s moving quickly to involve more people more fully in the life of the church.

A Few Simple Steps

Start with worship, which is, without a doubt, the heart of any congregation. Then take a look at the sanctuary and services. Are there greeters who can help with doors, provide information, and reserve seats for those who have difficulty walking? Providing large-print worship materials and making sure the pastor and other speakers are adequately lit for those who may read lips takes only a bit of time. Lapdesks can help anyone who may have difficulty holding a heavy Bible or hymnal. If overhead projections are used, make sure that the print and colors are easy to read. Some people, for instance, have a great deal of difficulty seeing words printed in all capital letters or in red. Make sure that print copies are available as well. Other worship materials, such as hymnals and Bibles, are available in large print or Braille at a relatively low cost.

Most disabilities do not prevent people from participating in the services, and if the podiums or altars are raised or otherwise inaccessible, lavalier, remote, or boom microphones can enable members to become readers or offer testimonies or prayers, until more extensive physical changes can be made. Our congregation, for instance, provides a handheld microphone for those who help with worship, but can’t manage the steps to the podium.

In other areas of the church, changes can be as simple as making sure that directional signs within the church are clearly visible and in colors that are easy to see. They should also include symbols for those who may have trouble with words. Hallways and bathrooms should be cleared of items that could be dangerous to someone who is visually impaired or limit the maneuvering of wheelchairs. Slick, round doorknobs can be replaced with handles at a relatively low cost. Chairs can be removed from classrooms to allow for wheelchair movement and placement, while large-print copies of Sunday school lessons can be made readily available, often directly from the publisher.

Future Steps Forward

As the congregation contemplates making more extensive physical changes, such as removing the end of pews, expanding bathrooms, adding ramps and lifts, etc., hiring a licensed contractor (or obtaining bids from several) is advisable for a number of reasons, including ensuring the safety of the changes and maintaining the aesthetic integrity of the church building itself. This is especially true if the building is historic, or has historic features that need to be maintained, which may call for a special kind of creativity.

Creativity is the key to making almost all of the changes, and some of the best ideas for innovative ways of opening up a church can come from the very people who will be using them. If the church does not currently have members with disabilities, invite them. Talk to the people in the community and ask them to participate in the assessment survey. The value in this is twofold: it will bring in new ideas to the church, and it will get the word out to the community that the church is dedicated to reaching anyone who has a heart and a desire for God. For we, as believers, have a commission from God to reach out to everyone, to all of His children, no matter what limits we may see. He, after all, sees their hearts.

 

Author, speaker, and life enthusiast Ramona Richards is the Senior Acquisitions Editor for Abingdon Press and mother to Rachel, her personal heroine.

 

Cokesbury offers resources for caretakers and churches, to help them address various special needs; you’ll find them here. And the following online resources may also be helpful:

Assessment checklist

Accessibility audits and other resources

“20 Practical Things Pastors and Churches Can Do To Make Families and Children with Disabilities Feel Welcome”

“Accessibility Is Another Word for Hospitality”

Low or no-costs suggestions for making the church more accessibility, from providing a large type bulletin to ensuring fire alarms also flash lights

Guide for ushers and greetings on welcoming special needs families to the congregation.

The National Organization on Disability (N.O.D) Religion and Disability Program. 202.293.5960; 202.293.5968 TDD; 800.248.ABLE.

The Building Owners and Managers Association International and their Guide to the 2010 ADA Standards