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Churches can remove barriers to accessibility with little cost

Welcoming people with disabilities requires churches to emphasize the importance of people first.

Gregg Newberry

Since the early 1990s people with disabilities have been using the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to transform American society into a more accessible and usable environment in which they can live, play, learn and work. Unfortunately, one of the most important liberties of society, freedom of religion, in some cases still remains overlooked and therefore, inaccessible.

Because churches are exempt under the ADA for Title I, which governs employment, and Title III, which governs public accommodations, people with disabilities often may not be able to worship in the church of their choice or may not even be able to attend worship services at all.

Additionally, people with disabilities may find similar barriers when pursuing employment in church settings. In many cases, church leaders find themselves in difficult situations. On the one hand, they may want to make their church more accessible, but on the other hand realize the financial resources may be lacking. In these situations it’s important to understand that while it may be financially infeasible to make the church completely accessible, by removing barriers such as stairs or narrow doorways it’s possible to make the church more welcoming and inviting.

Communication is key

One of the most important parts of welcoming individuals into a new faith community is effective communication. The first and possibly the easiest practice is to create an environment of comfort and put potential members with disabilities at ease is by using language that promotes respect and dignity.

People with disabilities are first and foremost people, with various characteristics which distinguish them from other members of the congregation. A person with a disability is a person first, thus the phrase people with disabilities is preferred because it emphasizes the person first, not the disability.

Each disability group has best practices uniquely associated with the types of disability involved. When introduced to a person with a disability it’s appropriate to offer to shake hands. People with limited hand use or who wear an artificial limb can usually shake hands; if not however, shaking the left hand is acceptable. For those who cannot shake hands, touch the person on the shoulder or arm to welcome and acknowledge their presence.

When addressing a person who uses a wheelchair, never lean on the person’s wheelchair. The chair is part of the space that belongs to the person who uses it.  Also, when talking with a person using a wheel chair for more than a few minutes, use a chair whenever possible, in order to place yourself at the person’s eye level to facilitate conversation.

If you are speaking with a person with speech impairments, listen attentively and keep your manner encouraging rather than correcting. At all times, exercise patience rather than attempting to speak for a person with speech difficulties. If necessary, ask short questions that require short answers or a nod or a shake of the head. Above all, never pretend to understand if you are having difficulty doing so. Repeat what you understand, or incorporate the person’s statements into each of the following interactions. The person’s reactions will clue you in and guide you to understanding.

Visually impaired

Another disability group which may be encountered is those who are blind or visually impaired. When greeting a person with a severe loss of vision always identify yourself and others who may be with you. If the person does not extend their hand to shake, verbally extend a welcome.

As with all cases, offer assistance in a dignified manner with sensitivity and respect. However, be prepared to have the offer declined, in which case do not proceed to assist. If the offer is accepted ask how to proceed and listen to or accept instructions. When arriving to a new location and offering seating, it’s recommended to place the person’s hand on the back or arm of the seat. A verbal cue at this point is helpful as well. Additionally, a possible accommodation for people with visual disabilities could include providing church bulletins and song lyrics in large print by simply adjusting the font size at the time of printing.

Allow a person with a visual impairment to take your arm at or about the elbow. This will enable you to guide, rather than lead the person. Perhaps the most familiar type of service animals used by people who are blind, are guide dogs. No matter how cute and cuddly this dog may seem, do not touch it without the person’s permission.

Additionally, do not make noises at the service animal; it may distract the animal from doing its job, which is to guide the individual safely to a destination. Along the same lines, do not feed the service animal.

A potential church member may also be a person with a hearing impairment. When speaking with a person with a hearing impairment, look directly at the person and speak clearly, naturally and slowly to establish if the person can read lips. Not all persons with hearing impairments can lip-read, but those who can will rely on facial expression and other body language to help in understanding. It is estimated that 40 percent of spoken words are visible on the lips.

Show consideration by placing yourself facing the light source and keeping your hands away from your mouth when speaking. Shouting will not help a person who is hearing impaired. It actually distorts sounds accepted through hearing aids and inhibits lip reading. If an interpreter is present, it is commonplace for the interpreter to be as close to the person speaking as possible.

In the United States most deaf people use American Sign Language (ASL). ASL is not a universal language. ASL is a language with its own syntax and grammatical structure. When scheduling an interpreter for a non-English speaking person, be certain to retain an interpreter who speaks and interprets in the language of the person.

Use multimedia systems

As an alternative to a sign language interpreter, recently many churches have begun using PowerPoint projection systems to help the congregation follow the song lyrics. This same system could also be used to aid in helping persons with hearing impairments follow the sermon by reading the words or giving bullet point topics of the specific passages being referenced.

Creating a welcoming and inviting fellowship by providing accommodations to people with disabilities does not always involve costly financial investments. In many cases, an accommodation to services may simply require a change to what is currently being provided.

Alternatively, making physical accommodations to structures to provide access to persons with disabilities could potentially involve more significant resources. In such cases, creative and innovative fundraising to provide the needed accommodations should be explored in order to include all people and allow everyone the opportunity to worship as they choose should be the ultimate goal of any truly inclusive congregation.

Gregg Newberry is human service specialist with the Illinois Department of Human Services in Chicago, IL.

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