Making Parishes Welcoming to the Physically Challenged

ChelseaDisabled2 Comments

Recently Rebecca Frech drew attention to the accessibility problems that many of us still face in parishes throughout the country.

church-interior.pngWhat’s perhaps most surprising is that it’s not just old buildings that are a problem. Even some brand new or newly renovated structures don’t seem to take accessibility into account (and, it should be noted, churches do not, by law, have to). Using her own newly renovated Parish as an example, Frech notes:

Those beautiful hand-scraped doors impress visitors with their obviously-expensive weight. They set the tone for the worship space that lies beyond.

There are nine doorways into the church. All are beautiful. All are heavy. All are self-closing. None are handicapped accessible.

At no time in the planning of this new and expensive building was accessibility considered to be a priority, and it shows. The automatic door buttons which would have remedied the problem were an additional expense that was not deemed a priority.

The interior is just as imposing, and just as equally inaccessible.

The cathedral ceilings soar, the stained glass glitters, the acoustics are perfection; and yet there is nowhere in this entire church, which seats over 1,000 easily, for a person in a wheelchair to sit. The non-ambulatory members of the parish have the choice of placing themselves either in the middle of an aisle, behind a pillar, or behind the very last pew. Parishioners with walkers have nowhere to place them that is out of the way. The woman at the 10am Mass who has a service dog seats him in the aisle out of necessity.

This, unfortunately, isn’t unique. A commentor relates:

My bishop spent millions having elaborate redecorations done to the cathedral, and neglected to put an access ramp onto the front steps. Now he is fundraising for a $250,000 ramp, to go with the new expensive look of the place. Its practically blackmail, a lot of his big donors are the frail elderly who can’t make it up the steps.

Now, I know churches are not required to comply with the ADA, but I can’t imagine how they could have overlooked (or, God forbid, deliberately left out) something as basic as a way for people with disabilities to access the building at all.

I’ve traveled a lot in the last 15 years and it’s always interesting — and sometimes frustrating — to see how different parishes accommodate their disabled members/visitors. Doors can definitely be a problem and I’ve been to several churches where I was not able to sit with my friends and family. But, I think bathrooms tend to be where I have trouble the most

In fact, the day before I read Rebecca’s post I went to Mass at the Cathedral here in Pensacola and was not able to even get through the bathroom door! When I asked if there was an accessible restroom somewhere, I was told that I would have to go to the parish hall next door…and that they would have to unlock it for me first.

Frech concludes her post with a list of several recommendations, including:

  • Those push-button door openers on at least one set of doors would be amazing!
  • If you can’t afford the $2,500 approx. per door, then please dismantle or slow down the self-closing mechanisms. Having a door slam into you when you’re not in a position to catch it is dangerous.
  • If that doesn’t work, prop the door open.
  • Have door greeter/opener people as a last resort. People leave or wander off. It’s not entirely their fault, stuff happens, it just means that the handicapped can’t get in/out until help arrives.
  • Handicapped parking with room for a chair lift is a must. This is a huge need especially in older or urban parishes where that may not have been a consideration when the parking lot was built. The absence of room to load/unload a wheelchair means that our family cannot attend your parish.
  • Handicapped entrances near the handicapped parking. Can you imagine having to go all the way around the church through the rain when you’re sitting down (and your hands are getting filthy from the mud and rain) because of someone’s poor planning? Been there, done that. It’s really no fun.
  • Handicapped accessible bathrooms near the handicapped entrance. Sometimes you’ve just really gotta go!
  • Handicapped stalls and hand rails do not make a bathroom accessible. Ask whether or not a person with physical limitations get in and out of the door, and remedy what’s wrong. (Is it heavy? Is there too sharp of an angle to get a wheelchair around?)
  • If the door is difficult to open, it needs to be fixed.
  • If it’s feasible to remove it completely without compromising modesty, that’s a really cheap fix.
  • Ramps need to end flush with the sidewalk. Powerchairs can’t go over those bumps, and it takes a bit of coordination for someone in a manual chair to make it. Please find a way to smooth it out.
  • Wide aisles that have room for a chair to fit in the Communion line for anyone who wants to receive with their family and/or the rest of the congregation.
  • A cutout or niche in at least one pew where a chair, walker, service dog, or stroller could easily fit.
  • At least one outlet in the sanctuary where oxygen tanks or equipment could be plugged in in the case of low batteries or an emergency.
  • Please remember that the sanctuary isn’t the whole church. If you’re having doughnuts in the hall, is there a way for everyone to get there? Is there an elevator or chair lift available if the hall is up or downstairs?
  • Remember that people with physical limitations aren’t trying to be annoying or exasperating. They have the same need for the Sacraments that the rest of us do. We have a moral obligation to do everything we can to make sure it’s feasible for everyone to be able to receive them.
  • It doesn’t have to happen over night. Slow and steady progress is still progress and is welcoming because it shows concern for the well-being of the differently-abled.

Along with some of these structural accommodations, something I’ve often wondered about is the kind of training ushers get on how to treat people with disabilities who come to Mass. For example, it is nice when they actually ask if I want communion brought back to me instead of just assuming. I usually prefer to go up with the congregation if I can.

What do you think? What do you see? Are churches doing enough to provide access for handicapped individuals? What more could they be doing?

Personally, I tend to keep quiet and give most churches the benefit of the doubt, assuming they’re doing what they can within their means to accommodate the disabled. But Rebecca’s post encouraged me to try to be a little more proactive in suggesting where things can be improved when I come across them.

Understandably, cost is an issue with many of these things and churches are not obligated to comply with ADA regulations. But, if anyone should be doing all they can to make people with disabilities feel welcome and valued, it’s the Church. Her mission is, after all, to spread the Good News everywhere, to everyone. What does it say about her commitment to this mission when a segment of the population are literally prevented from opening her doors and being an active part of her community?

**Update** I will be discussing this on Catholic radio this afternoon with Mike Allen. Click here to listen live at 5:15 pm Eastern.

2 Comments on “Making Parishes Welcoming to the Physically Challenged”

  1. My wife is a wheelchair user, and although because of her disability, does not attend Mass regularly, our home parish is very accessible. There is a well thought out parking area, close to the handicap ramp, through a pair of doors (both of which open) with buttons that work well (the ramp is covered!) and into a sanctuary that has dedicated (!) handicap pews and an area with room for wheelchairs and scooters. Communion is brought to those in the handicap pews and the wheelchair area. There is a nice ramp into the parish hall as well (can’t speak to the bathrooms).
    We were less fortunate when we went to Mass for the handicapped at the Cathedral (which was extensively and well remodeled in the last decade). The nicest handicap ramp we’ve ever seen ends at a pair of doors with a button, but only one side opens and there is a post (!) in the middle. Seating was not particularly thought out well (we were to one side of the altar, with a couple other wheelchair people), but it was a beautiful service.
    One parish we visited for a display of Nativity scenes had a nearly inaccessible hall.
    Churches may not be required by government laws to be accessible, but one wonders how well we are caring for the least among us when our churches and halls are barely accessible or inaccessible.

  2. This is exactly why I decided to go back to school. The Church doesn’t have to comply with the ADA but in the spirit of community & so many other Catholic principles they should.

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