The Accessible Church
by the Very Reverend Father John Matusiak –Rector of St. Joseph Church, Wheaton, IL; managing editor of the publication “The Orthodox Church;” and secretary of the Orthodox Church of America’s Diocese of the Midwest.> (at the time this article was written)
The rights of people with handicapping conditions first received the support of federal law with the enactment of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Title V, Section 504, prohibits discrimination against qualified persons with handicapping conditions in federally-assisted programs or activities solely on the basis of disability.During the years immediately following enactment, administrators and advocates learned that non-discrimination is more difficult to practice with the disabled than in cases of racial or sexual discrimination. The reason is that people with disabilities may need different treatment than others for equal access to public life. That realization prompted demonstrations at Health, Education, and Welfare offices across the country and led to the development of the Section 504 regulation in 1977. For the most part, churches have ignored the needs of the disabled, and many church buildings are virtually inaccessible. Steps, pew placement, inaccessible washroom facilities, and insensitivity to the needs of the disabled in general have posed problems for decades. Yet as we consider the means by which the Orthodox Church in America can effectively evangelize, grow, and reach out to everyone — including the disabled — we should consider accessibility one of our top priorities, as every parish can expect that one out of four of its members will be handicapped at some point in life. A major attitudinal barrier to overcome is the idea that people with disabilities are people in need. As Orthodox Christians we should strive to see people as having abilities instead of disabilities, capable of offering leadership and a host of other talents to the Church and community. The parish which truly seeks to evangelize as Christ commanded will welcome all people, as Christ Himself did.
Let’s consider a few facts.
The disabled persons are not necessarily handicapped. A handicap exists when the disabled person cannot overcome a barrier. Therefore the responsibility for accessibility is in those who create barriers or who should remove such barriers once their presence is recognized.
Buildings send messages in what might be termed “building language.” The message that church buildings need to say is “welcome.” A church building or parish hall with countless steps, inadequate sound systems, or inaccessible facilities surely does not extend a warm invitation to the disabled.
We may fool ourselves that proposed structural changes are planned only for the permanently disabled people. Not so. At any moment many able-bodied parishioners are recovering from illness or are temporarily in casts or on crutches. Further, every parishioner is growing older. These are all conditions which benefit from “barrier-free” access to our church facilities.
One of the purposes of the Church is the maintenance of Christian fellowship. We assume that it is a person’s desire to continue active involvement in worship and in fellowship as long as life will allow. On the other hand, every parish has its list of homebound parishioners who are no longer active. The decision to be homebound is theirs. They perceive that, given their disability, to leave home and enter the church building or hall is too difficult. If every church building could be barrier free, the greater part of the perceived difficulty will have been removed.
An Accessibility Audit is one of the easiest ways of discovering architectural barriers, and considering the different ways in which these barriers can be removed is usually quite simple.
Determining costs, procedures, and the time involved in removing physical barriers is more difficult. But with such information in hand, decisions, plans, and implementation take place at whatever pace a particular parish accepts.
Awareness-building might proceed more quickly if able-bodied parishioners used a wheelchair or crutches to tour their parish facilities in order to experience first hand some of the problems faced by disabled persons.
It is also essential to recognize the fact that we are long past that time when the need for accessibility developed. The long list of those now considered shut-in makes that self-evident. We need also to remember that removing existing architectural barriers will not, of itself, return to active parish life those who are comfortably established in their home-bound lifestyle. Those for whom we are becoming barrier free are, primarily, those who are presently active and those becoming active as time goes on, the one out of four who will become disabled at some point in their lives. Our goal should be to extend their time of active participation for as long as possible.
What Is An Accessible Church?
An accessible church is one that has overcome:
The physical or architectural barriers that make it difficult for people with handicaps to enter or to participate fully;
The attitudinal barriers that keep them from feeling welcome. Of the two, the attitudinal barrier is the most difficult to overcome. Once awareness, sensitivity, and understanding are achieved, the removal of physical barriers becomes an easy task.
Attitudinal barriers might be more easily overcome if we kept the following points in mind:
People with disabilities also have many gifts and talents given to them by God. We are all called to be stewards of our own gifts and to encourage others to share theirs as well.
Disabled people should be included in parish leadership roles. When planning programs, learn firsthand the needs of the whole parish.
Parishioners may have relatives with handicapping conditions who are anticipating or experiencing attitudinal or physical barriers. Listen to their fears or anger and involve them in the process of change.
To assure that people with visual disabilities can fully participate in liturgical services, contact your local society for the blind. For little or no cost they will gladly assist you in producing prayer books and other religious literature in Braille or large-type.
Christianity has a long and unfortunate history of excluding hearing-impaired persons. St. Augustine, an early Christian writer, declared that deaf persons could not be Christians because they could not “hear the Word.” Past mistakes do not justify continued insensitivity. Since it is generally impossible to offer services with sign language interpretations, consider better sound amplification, which can be accomplished by installing a “loop” system in the pews. Your local society for the hearing-impaired will provide information about mechanical means of access.
Non-sighted persons will want to move around parish facilities independently. Ushers or greeters can express their welcome by orienting them immediately to steps, doors, and corridors.
Several modifications may need to be made for equal access by those in wheelchairs. Can they move freely around the church? Are some pews shorter than others thereby allowing persons in wheelchairs to be part of a row rather than an appendage of the worshipping congregation?
When your parish has learned to integrate people with handicapping conditions into its life of service, you may want to explore new opportunities for outreach and evangelization by noting in parish publications, phone directory listings, and advertisements that the church building is accessible to the disabled. It is a proven fact that the disabled will more readily join churches which are accessible.
Because of its history of barring those with disabilities, the Church is challenged to seek out people with handicapping conditions and invite their participation in a common ministry. Elimination of architectural barriers, as vital as it is, is not enough. An on-going ministry to the disabled should be an integral part of every progressive parish.
From the Orthodox Church of America’s online Resource Handbook for Lay Ministries’ Parish Development Page, by Permission