We know that the number of older adults in the population continues to increase, which means the number of people with physical disabilities is increasing. As a result, congregations are looking at ways to make their buildings more accessible. All congregations have members with disabilities or encounter people with disabilities among those in the community who should be invited to worship.
We like to think of our congregations as places where all are welcome. In fact, however, our church building may have barriers that we do not see because we are so accustomed to the way things are.
What barriers prevent participation by all in your congregation? Some of the more obvious questions people with disabilities might ask are: Will I be able to come to worship in my wheelchair? Will I be able to hear? Are assistive listening devices available? Will I be able to see or to read the bulletin? If I am among the 15 per cent of the population affected by environmental illnesses, will I be able to worship in your building? Is the ventilation system adequate? Are the chemicals used for cleaning compounds environmentally friendly and unscented? Is there an accessible restroom close to the worship space? Is there nearby space for handicapped parking?
One way to begin a thorough accessibility study is by gathering a committee and taking a walk through your building. Include people with disabilities on this committee. All committee members should try to view your building from the perspective of those with disabilities. Before you begin your survey, create a list of questions to be answered as you take your tour. You might want to contact one of the agencies listed in the resource section. These agencies can provide suggested audit questions for you to use as you take your tour through your church. Or simply create your own list, asking yourself: If people have a disability,
Your tour should include classrooms, fellowship areas, and restrooms, in addition to the worship space. Do not forget that the worship space includes the chancel! Making a building accessible involves more than building a ramp or installing an elevator, although these may be appropriate steps in your overall plan.
After you have completed your audit, you will want to begin formulating a plan to correct any deficiencies you have found. Now you have a new set of questions to answer. What will these changes cost? How will you pay for the changes? What strategies will you use to report the needs as well as the costs to the congregation? Will you need to prioritize the list, so that you begin with several basic changes and then implement the others as you find funds for them? Who will do the actual work? How will you let the community know that your building is becoming accessible? What kind of service will you plan to celebrate your new space?
As you prepare to act on your plan, you might educate the congregation to the need to remove barriers. For example, you might schedule a series of forums or temple talks featuring input from those who are willing to share their experience worshiping in your congregation.
One ELCA group that may be helpful is Church Building Consultants. They have regional offices and may be contacted through the Mission Investment Fund. In addition, the Mission Investment Fund has loan funds available for projects related to making church buildings more accessible.
Accessibility is an issue of hospitality, but it is more than that. It is a way that we make sure all people can join in worship.