More Congregations Make Accessibility a Priority

Accessibility seems to have reached most areas of a person’s life. Restaurants, movies theaters, and other places of business make reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities. This is not always true for places of worship. Older buildings, which we all know comprise a great many of the places of worship, are especially difficult to modify.

The National Organization on Disability (NOD), based in Washington D.C., began a campaign in 1998 to recognize congregations committed to including people with all types of disabilities as full and active participants with the theme “Access: It begins in the Heart.” Since its inception, over 2,200 congregations are officially registered nationally, with 59 in Minnesota.

Becoming an officially recognized accessible congregation is accomplished by committing to the following principles: People with disabilities are valued as individuals, having been created in the image of God; Endeavor to remove barriers of architecture, communications and attitude that exclude people with disabilities from full and active participation; encouraging everyone in the congregation to practice their faith and use their gifts and talents in worship, service, study and leadership. (From the Accessible Congregation Commitment form)

The NOD does not have an enforcement of these principles, but Lorraine Thal, Program Officer for the NOD’s Religion and Disability Program, states, “We expect a long term commitment from congregations to this program, and we are very comfortable with respondents being both truthful and honorable.” To be certified, a congregation needs to fill out a questionnaire and make the commitment to follow the Accessibility Congregation principles.

People with disabilities face many obstacles to regular worship attendance. Starting with reliable and regular transportation, which is a major concern, to the actual times of the services, many obstacles other than physical ones are faced. When one arrives, the accessibility of the building, the size of the print in the bulletins, whether or not the service is signed, and whether or not people with disabilities can participate in all aspects of the service are other concerns.

A quick phone survey of area churches revealed that, even though many churches consider themselves to be accessible, other barriers may exist for full participation by a person with a disability.

Church plays a major role in many people’s lives. Belonging to a congregation and participating in the activities offered is no less important to a person with a disability than it is to a person without a disability. It is critical to an individual with a disability to not only be able to attend, but to also speak, sing, and participate in ways that many congregations ask their members to do.

Some neighboring congregations have made a commitment to share a van to help transport individuals, and other congregations have “paired” people with and without disabilities to assist in just getting to church.

Congregations need not be perfect, just set achievable goals and make a commitment to action. To join, a congregation needs to commit to using the gifts and talents of people with disabilities in worship, service, study and leadership. There is no cost to join the Accessible Congregations Campaign. The NOD will send a packet of information to any congregation interested, and will send a certificate suitable for display. The congregation’s name and city will be listed on the NOD’s Web site as an accessible congregation.

One of the 59 listed congregations in Minnesota is the Minnehaha United Methodist Church in Minneapolis. Being physically accessible for ten years, they joined in the Accessible Congregations Campaign six years ago, and have continuously made modifications to become even more accessible. From having flexible seating in the first three rows, to keeping a wheelchair onsite for visitors, this congregation has the backing of its national synod as well as the support of its members.

For more information on accessible congregations in your area, visit www.nod.org. Click on the Religion and Disability Program link about halfway down the page, and then click on the Accessible Congregations Campaign about halfway down the next page. This will bring you to a link for state by state listings. The Minnesota congregations listed are more than happy to talk to you about attending a service.

Look for a follow-up article next month. Access Press welcomes any input on this subject, as we may begin a listing of accessible worship spaces in future issues.