Accessibility: Churches Shouldn't Be Without It

Could you tell your parents, your wife, your children, or a friend that they can't attend the church of their choice because of their physical disability? In many churches, this is what they're being told. It's what I've been told.

Because of steps and stairs, people with disabilities, especially people like me who use wheelchairs, or who have other mobility disabilities, hear this frequently.

When I'm denied this way, I must ask myself some heavyweight questions: Am I willing to ask someone to carry me up and down all those steps? Am I sure I can make these "arrangements" with someone who is willing to assist me in a safe and dignified manner? Are those on whom I'll rely physically able to carry me? Am I sure I'm not putting them and myself into a risky situation? If the answer is "no" to any of these, then I simply can't go.

It just doesn't feel right to me to have to make an appointment to attend church. Churches should have elevators.

There are many of us who advocate greater accessibility for our churches, synagogues, and other religious institutions. Wheelchair ramps stuck onto the side of a church limit access to just one level, and many people with disabilities are unable to use a ramp.

Unfortunately, federal laws, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act, and state laws and codes that mandate accessibiliity in all public buildings, do not apply to our religious institutions. Separation of church and state, you know.

I can shop at any mall, see any movie, buy groceries in most any store, even go to bars and casinos, but I can't independently go to the church of my choice.

Most accessibility problems exist in our older churches, those structures with many steps. More often than not, greater and safer accessibility means an elevator.

About 10 percent of churchgoers have a disability that restricts their mobility - this doesn't count those who find it difficult or dangerous to use steps in foul weather. And with accessibility commonplace in public places, the chances of a person with a mobility disability showing up at the bottom of the steps of your church are now greater than ever. Are you prepared to turn them away?

Often, advocates for those with disabilities are confronted with the same questions whenever the elevator issue arises: How many people will use an elevator? Is the cost justified?

There is no way of knowing how many people would use the elevator. And can a price really be placed on freedom of worship in an accessible church? It is the responsibility of our relgious institutions to provide access to everyone, so that all may enter.

We who advocate for greater accessibility have even asked ourselves the same questions. The answer is always the same: It's the right thing to do - and if we build it they will come.

* Robert Peters, who uses a wheelchair, is a technical writer at Seagate Technology Inc. in Bloomington, Minn.

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