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Consider disabled members, guests when buildingcomment (0)

January 1, 2004

By Sondra Washington

Entering, exiting and maneuvering around a church facility may not be a problem for most church members, and many of us don’t think twice about taking a quick trip to the church restroom when needed. But for a steadily increasing population of people throughout the country, these matters can be major obstacles that frequently prevent them from attending or joining a local church, experts say.
According to the 1990 United States Census, about 18 percent of the country’s population have some form of disability including mobility impairments, visual problems or deafness. To connect with this vastly unreached audience, many churches should seek to design and remodel their facilities for accessibility.
“It is good theology for churches to be proactive in including people with disabilities because Jesus did it all the time,” said Robert Anderson, president of the Center for Religion and Disability in Pelham.
In a publication called “The Architect’s Guide,” LifeWay (then, Baptist Sunday School Board) Church Architecture department further explains the biblical significance of accessibility. It reads, “The Bible is very clear about the concern which Jesus has for physically disadvantaged persons — the gospel of Jesus Christ is for all people, regardless of age, race, social, financial or physical condition. Rather than look for loopholes or seek to avoid compliance with handicapped access standards, churches must take the lead and set the examples for openness and barrier-free accessibility for all people.”
Likewise, Gwen McCormick writes in “Planning and Building Church Facilities,” “Many churches have responded in good faith to these codes and provided at least limited accessibility. However, the church should not be content to meet minimal code requirements. The church should be a leading advocate and its facilities a model for program accessibility. This means the church should make it possible for those with handicaps to participate in any program the church offers.”
In addition to the biblical significance of accessibility, churches should provide more accessible facilities due to the growing number of disabled people in the country.
“The government says that by 2010, 70 million baby boomers will be going into retirement and with age comes disabilities,” Anderson added. “So it behooves congregations to start planning for the future because a large number of people in the pews are baby boomers.”
Unfortunately, experts say a large number of churches fail to design their buildings to suit the needs of disabled people despite increased awareness of this topic.
“Studies have shown that only 5 to 7 percent of a church’s membership have disabilities (a church of 300 could have 54 members who have disabilities),” said Anderson, a member of Vestavia Hills Baptist Church, Birmingham. “There is a gap — churches are not reaching between 10 to 13 percent of the general population. Churches are somehow not reaching out to people with disabilities or they are not as accessible and welcoming as they could be.”
Former Baptist campus minister to Judson College in Marion and Auburn University at Montgomery Sandra Wilkerson concurred. Stricken with multiple sclerosis for more than 26 years and dependent on a wheelchair for mobility, Wilkerson knows firsthand the problems that inaccessible church building designs can cause disabled people.
“Church facilities can be totally accessible for the disabled yet fail to reach this people group because the church is people, the body of Christ, whose highest priority is relationships, genuine inclusion, openness, friendship and caring concern,” Wilkerson stated. “Also, there must be a willingness to not only minister to but also with the disabled, allowing them to fully participate within the life of the church body. Without these elements a church structure essentially builds walls, shuts their doors and becomes a ‘user-unfriendly’ fortress.”
Although federal, state and local codes require a certain amount of accessibility features in church facilities and some churches are taking the steps to make their buildings more welcoming, many churches still need guidance in this area, according to Anderson.
“There is a critical factor that churches don’t consider — a lot of people have difficulty attending the church but they may not tell the pastor or staff because it may be embarrassing,” he said. “If someone has a problem getting to the restroom and they end up soiling himself they may not tell them. They may just not come back. A fellow once told me that there is nothing worse than soiling yourself in a holy place.”
To avoid these problems, Anderson advises churches to include people with various disabilities on church building teams or allow them to check building plans to make sure the facility will meet the special needs of disabled individuals and their caretakers.
He also advises church leaders to ask their architects and contractors if they are experienced with Americans with Disabilities Act construction projects.
“Make sure that you tell your architect that your church wants to build an accessible building,” he stated. “It has to be talked about. Do not assume that they are going to do it because they may not.”
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