Making facilities accessible to all
By Vicki Brown
Word&Way Correspondent

Finding ways to ensure all members can use or are attracted to church facilities can be a problem for congregations.

Physical disabilities
When considering church accessibility, many staffers think first of finding ways to accommodate physically challenged individuals. Federal government regulations, particularly the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, forced churches to examine and update facilities. The ADA’s guidelines come into play more prominently with new construction.

Larry Phillips, a principal of Springfield-based Pellham Phillips Architects and Engineers, explained that the law requires “equal opportunity” for all individuals to use a public building.

Enacted as a civil rights measure, the law requires each general area of public buildings, such as churches, to be accessible. For example, everyone must have access to a church balcony. However, the church is only required to provide access to the area. It is not required to make every row or every seat in the balcony accessible to each membership group.

And the guidelines are open to interpretation. Some churches provide access to the sanctuary as required for a general area but do not build accessible pulpit, stage and choir areas, Phillips said. “A good design would get a handicapped person to the platform,” he added.

Hearing- or visually-impaired
ADA offers limited guidelines for accessibility for the hearing- or visually impaired. Tap rails for the blind are required in new facilities.

The law requires that new construction include technology, such as individual amplifiers, for the hearing-impaired.

The church’s worship bulletin should frequently point out the units’ availability, George Joslin, longtime minister to the Deaf and hearing impaired, noted.

Accessibility for the Deaf cannot rely on technology. Instead, Joslin said, congregations should at least provide a Deaf Sunday School class and an American Sign Language interpreter during worship services.

Every church should survey their community to learn if such a ministry is needed or if the needs of the Deaf community are being met by other churches,” he said. “Not every church needs to have an interpreter, but every community should provide an opportunity for Deaf people to worship and to learn of the Savior.”

Cultural and age factors also affect accessibility, not to church programs but sometimes to spiritual growth. Creating areas within the facility for cultural or age expression can open opportunities to witness to that age or cultural group.

Phillips is particularly excited about a move among congregations to provide special areas for teens. His company has designed youth facilities with a club-like atmosphere, including video games, loud music and wild décor. “Some churches are even providing climbing walls,” he said.