About 61 million people in the United States live with some level of disability.
While new church construction frequently incorporates accessibility features such as single-level architecture, elevators, and no steps, leaders of older churches face the more difficult task of increasing the accessibility of their structures.
Churches and the ADA
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which became law in 1992, changed the landscape of accessibility to public places in the United States.
In general, churches are exempt from ADA requirements.
However, the law applies to the church if it has 15 or more employees and one of them has a disability. ADA also applies to the portion of the facility a church rents for a fee, which must then be accessible to people with disabilities.
Nevertheless, ADA has had an impact on churches by creating a set of standards for accessibility.
Church leaders who desire to make their facilities accessible to all people now have a benchmark that they can meet—or exceed—to accomplish this goal. If church leaders think both big and small, and consider all the possibilities, they should be able to increase accessibility to every area of the building.
The first step is to conduct an accessibility survey. Evaluate every accessibility point of the church, both into and out of the building, and within the structure. Let’s take a tour of a typical church, discover where barriers can exist, and present possible solutions.
Transportation: People with disabilities will often use their normal means of daily transportation to get to church. This ranges from driving their vehicles (some of which are specially equipped with driving aids and wheelchair lifts) to public transportation. Churches can help make people with disabilities aware of public transportation options and help with scheduling. On some occasions, a church will provide its own transportation using a van equipped with a chairlift, which can accommodate four people in wheelchairs.
Parking lots, curbs, and walkways: Create designated parking areas closest to the main pedestrian entrance. Make sure these areas are adequately identified by signs and by blue boundary lines. These parking spaces should be at least 96 inches wide and be level with surface slopes. Allow for sufficient room in the parking space itself for the loading and unloading of wheelchairs. Once the wheelchair is out of the vehicle, accommodate access with a curb cut and ramp with the least possible slope.
Consider a parking lot ministry with a team of helpers on the lookout to assist people getting into and out of vans with chairlifts, and helping those with canes and walkers get from their vehicles to the church.
Entryways and exits: Steps leading into the church present the next barrier a person with a disability may encounter. One common solution is a ramp, which can help people with wheelchairs, walkers, or canes. Ramps should have edge protection and adequate flat landing areas at each end. Handrails are another helpful option.
The most common construction materials are wood, aluminum, steel, and concrete. Compare costs, surface textures, and maintenance requirements. Aluminum and concrete are the most expensive, but also the most efficient and safe. A textured surface is desirable no matter what material is selected. Prices depend on the length of the ramp.
The second barrier is the entryway. The basic rule of thumb is that a doorway should be wide enough to accommodate a wheelchair, a minimum of 36 inches. A local building contractor can modify existing entryways to accommodate these dimensions. The same 36-inch minimum width also applies to any hallway or doorway inside the building.
The mechanisms used to open and close doors should be easy for everyone to operate. One solution is to install automatic sliding doors, or doors that are opened by pressing a button. A less costly option is to install door hardware that can be easily grasped with one hand and that does not require excessive twisting or pinching of the wrist to open. Handles should be at a height easily accessible to people in wheelchairs.
If the door is manually opened and closed, make sure all mechanisms are well lubricated and maintained. Doors should not stick or need to be tugged or pulled to open and close.
Multi-level buildings: Elevators are the most expensive option for moving people between floors. One such device is an LU/LA (limited use/limited application) elevator. These elevators are designed to fit into smaller, closet-sized spaces, which make them easier to adapt to existing church construction. Chair lifts are another primary option in moving people between building levels. Wheelchair lifts come in two primary types, vertical platform lifts and incline platform lifts that guide a wheelchair through a space normally designed for stairs.
Another type of technology lifts a single person, rather than a person and a wheelchair. Models can sometimes be self-contained, movable units designed to serve multiple locations without permanent installation.
The sanctuary: Churches can either have a separate disability seating area or make accommodations throughout the auditorium. The latter choice helps individuals feel more included and welcomed. Any sanctuary seating option that mainstreams people with disabilities without violating fire codes should be explored. This usually entails dispersing spaces throughout the auditorium where a person can maneuver a wheelchair into position. Ushers are key players in letting people know where these areas are located.
Local building codes may require auditoriums with theater seating to meet a one percent ADA access seating requirement. Some theater seats have arms that flip up to enable a person to slide from a wheelchair into the seat. Sloped floor auditoriums often include a flat section to accommodate wheelchairs or people who would have difficulty standing on an inclined surface.
Flooring: The key phrase to keep in mind for your flooring material and construction is “slip resistant.” That nice, shiny, waxed, hard-surface floor may be pleasing to the eye but can pose a slip and fall risk to those with accessibility issues. Carpet should be firmly attached with a level texture and have a maximum pile thickness of one-half inch.
Going the Extra Mile
Auditory and visual needs: Various ways exist to accommodate the needs of deaf or hard-of-hearing worshipers. Signing is one alternative that provides an attractive and public volunteer ministry for interpreters. Another is called “real time” closed-captioning of songs and sermon wording on a video screen. This will require investment in a computer, software, caption encoder, and a stenographer with the skill level of a court reporter to enter the data. Some churches feature amplification systems for people with hearing impairment but who are not deaf.
Consider ways to make every part of your service accessible to the blind and people with limited vision. Provide adequate lighting for reading materials, and make sure video projections are large, easy to read, and bright. Offer Braille and large-print hymnals and bulletins.
Some of the essential rituals of worship are at times off-limits to people because of accessibility barriers. One of those is baptism. Some churches make accommodations by altering the ritual, such as pouring water onto the worshiper from a cup or basin. Your church can still accomplish immersion by modifying the baptistry and adding a sling lift. The addition of a ramp or wheelchair lift can make the stage or pulpit area accessible, and provides an alternative to stairs.
Restrooms: Restrooms are an important place for a church to make modifications for accessibility. Doorways into the bathroom and into stalls can be widened for access by wheelchairs. Handrails and grab bars can be added, along with wheelchair-accessible commodes, urinals, sinks, and towel dispensers.
Children’s areas: Playgrounds offer a great opportunity to increase accessibility for children with disabilities. For example, First Church of the Nazarene in Pasadena, California, installed a universally accessible playground. Kids in wheelchairs are able to use any part of the playground, including slides and swings, and play alongside all other children. This playground is open to the public, and thereby adds a powerful outreach from the church to the community.
Lee A. Dean is a freelance writer living in Michigan.