Often overlooked and inexpensive accessibility improvements
A frequent perception is that making a congregation's building accessible to people with disabilities is expensive. It is true that equipment such as elevators does cost money, but there are many things a congregation can do for very little money that will dramatically increase access. Many of these items are also frequently overlooked in planning.
- First, and most important, is to have an attitude that accessibility and people who use such features matter. All of the access features in the world will not matter if the people of the congregation are not welcoming. And if there is a problem with access, showing real concern for the person will go a long way toward overcoming problems.
- Designate a person in the congregation to be the director of disability ministries, so that all concerns can be heard. Keep in mind the principle "nothing about us without us" and include people with disabilities in all planning, especially planning architectural modifications.
- Start a Disability Ministry Fund. No set amount is required, but it will remind people that this is an important matter.
- Conduct an accessibility audit so you can formulate goals for increasing access. We provide an official form and several supplemental ones.
- If you have a church web site, put the results of your accessibility audit on the site, so prospective visitors can be assured that their concerns are important to you.
- Provide transportation to church for those who are elderly or without transportation.
- Maintain regular communication with those who are unable to attend services or other church events. Take altar flowers or bulletins to them; bring children to visit. This allows these people to continue to feel a part of the community, and it allows the community to monitor those persons' wellbeing.
- Be alert to the problems created by off-premises events, including small group meetings, restaurant visits, progressive dinners, and so on, which may be at inaccessible locations or lack transportation.
- If you have a fellowship time or meals, provide variety; not everyone can have coffee, cookies, and other items.
- A good first impression usually begins with your parking lot! Provide at least one accessible parking spot, marked with the appropriate sign, and educate your congregation on the importance of respecting such spaces-at church and elsewhere. Observe the usage of these spaces; you may need to add more.
- If you have a large parking lot, pick up people with a golf cart and transport them to the door. This won't help everyone (people using wheelchairs, for example, may prefer to stay in them).
- Offer valet parking for people with disabilities or other conditions that make it difficult to get to your door from the parking lot. Be aware that modified vehicles may be unsafe for drivers who are not familiar with their controls.
- In places where winter weather brings snow and ice, remove the snow and ice promptly from all sidewalks and parking-lots. During the fall months, make sure that slippery leaves are also removed.
- Place a map at your door (and have copies available) indicating where accessible facilities are. Also be sure to note areas where access is a problem.
- In worship bulletins and similar materials, instead of the frequent asterisk and note “please stand,” consider a statement such as “rise in body or spirit.” This usage is a fluid situation; many congregations have used “all who are able and wish to do so should stand,” but this has been taken in some places as demeaning. Check our Facebook posts and other sources for further ideas and updates.
- Use your copier settings (or other settings) to produce large-print copies of the bulletin, hymns, and other materials used in worship. (Large print is 18 point and should be produced on paper which is white or off-white and produces good contrast with the type.) Use Arial, Tahoma, or other sans serif, plain fonts.
- Consider replacing fixed pews with moveable pews or chairs so that people with disabilities may be seated with the community and participate fully.
- If you have fixed pews, create pew cuts by shortening the ends of several pews so that users of wheelchairs can sit within the main body of the congregation, not in a designated section, and not being forced to block the aisles. Pew cuts also are helpful for people who are deaf-blind because they need to touch their sign language interpreter's hands. Pew cuts enable persons who are deaf-blind to sit in chairs facing the rear of the church, while the tactile interpreter sits in the pew facing the worship leader.
- If there are steps into your chancel, consider having a communion station on the floor of the sanctuary. This will permit young children, those who are frail or elderly, and person with disabilities to receive the Sacrament in the same way the rest of the congregation receives. Also clearly offer to bring the elements to anyone who wishes.
- Have at least one accessible restroom. A unisex room is fine, and can sometimes be created from two side by side restrooms. Check ADA standards for transfer and turn space, as well as soap and towel dispensers.
- Provide a paper cup dispenser near your water fountain. This will transform an inaccessible fountain into one easily accessible to wheelchair users.
- Keep aisles and other spaces clear. There is a particular temptation to use turning areas in restrooms for storage or waste cans.
- In some settings, it may be helpful or acceptable to seat worshipers who are hard of hearing toward the front of the nave so that they can easily see the preacher and liturgists. Ask the preacher and liturgists to speak clearly and slowly, looking frequently at the congregation.
- Make copies of the sermon available before the service as well as copies of the scripture lessons to be read.
- If you use a projection system, make materials available in print also—or even on-line for use with Braille readers, tablets and smart phones.
- Install levers or long-handled door hardware, which is easier for everyone to use, especially those who have limited hand function.
- Survey your sound system to ensure that it meets the needs of those who will depend on it. Let people who are hard of hearing test it for you and tell what adjustments are needed. The UM Committee on Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Ministries has several articles with helpful information on this topic.
- Apply brightly colored, textured strips at the top of all stairs. These strips alert people with limited vision that they are approaching stairs. People who are carrying things which block their vision will also appreciate this notice.
- Survey lighting levels; many vision problems occur with dim light.
- Update fire alarms to include light cues (but not flashing lights which may trigger seizures).
- Extend picnic table tops 10-14 inches beyond the seats to accommodate wheelchairs. Check out this article for more.
- Provide accessibility for other tables: a space of at least 30 inches at the table (with 48 inches turning space) and table height of 28-34 inches.
- Make your facility available to disability organizations if it's fully accessible.
- Support or develop groups for persons with disabilities such as stroke, diabetes, epilepsy, mental illness, etc., and for parents or caretakers.
- Offer instructional sessions about the needs of people with disabilities, especially those that are less apparent, such as diabetes, epilepsy, high blood pressure, or mental illness.
- Visit and exchange information with other churches or on the DMC's Facebook page that shows the many ways you promote accessibility and inclusion.
- Because two-thirds of working-age people with disabilities are unemployed (even though they are able to work and want to do so), and because many members of your congregation are employers, make sure they are knowledgeable about the issues around employment of people with disabilities both from the point of view of the employer and the point of view of those who have disabilities.
- Convene a team of parishioners who are willing to call your legislators on behalf of legislation about transportation and housing. Join with other churches in your community on this project.
- Many activities such as skiing, roller skating and camping can be enjoyed by people with disabilities, especially when they are partnered with someone who is temporarily able-bodied. Encourage your parishioners to look for the fun and fulfillment in these activities.
- Educate your congregation about chemical sensitivities, also known as environmental illnesses. Many everyday items ranging from perfume to latex gloves can induce allergic responses. Survey your cleaning supplies being mindful of those with environmental sensitivities. Encourage everyone to curtail the wearing of perfumes and aftershave as well.Use this Sensory Sensitivity Inventory (PDF) as a guide, handout, or audit
- Designate your church campus as a non-smoking area.
- In an educational program or in a sermon, explore the differences between healing and cure. All people can receive God's healing grace. Not all of us will be cured.
- Celebrate Disability Awareness Sunday annually. But don't stop there: make it a focus day for ongoing activities.
- Offer religious education opportunities to students with intellectual and other developmental disabilities. With supports, most students can succeed in inclusion programs with non-disabled peers. When inclusion isn't possible, find age appropriate material suitable to the child's abilities, or make use of one of the excellent interfaith special religious education curricula available.
- Encourage families with children who have a disability to bring their children to church. Encourage the members of the congregation to be welcoming, even if a child is not always quiet during the service. Welcome children with disabilities to participate in the celebration of the Sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion, as well as to take part in Confirmation.
- Start a mentoring program to increase secular life participation and discipleship. A Christian mentor “is a powerful forces in the life of a person whose world is clouded with impossibilities” and is a reminder that we are all created in God's image (Myra Monroe). Such a program is also good for one's own growth.
- Include everyone! Understand, accept and celebrate your own limitations. All of us are who we are because of, rather than in spite of, our limitations. Encourage people with disabilities to teach us the lessons of imperfection and limitation.
First UMC, Hershey PA
Rick Hansen Foundation
Rev. Barbara Ramnaraine
Charlotte Hawkins Shepard, Ph.D.
Tim Vermande, November 2017