For faith communities, celebrating worship within an environment that invites any person and all worship-goers to participate, regardless of ability, is essential. Through active participation in the liturgy each worshipper more fully understands self, communes with fellow members in the body of Christ and connects with the Divine.
The breadth of accessibility is important to understand. In the early days of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, many church clients responded to ADA provisions and discussions about accessibility thusly: “We don’t have anyone in our church that is in a wheelchair.” While that may be true, it underestimates the need in three ways.
- Guests from the community, who may have physical limitations, are less likely to find a church home if there are physical barriers impacting their worship experience. If the building is inaccessible for individuals, or families that need accessible provisions it has a great impact on their overall experience and comfort level.
- Addressing accessibility is concerned with all types of human ability. We tend to immediately think of wheelchair needs first. Maybe that is because it is a more visible symbol of physical challenge. But the breadth of human ability is broader: people with walkers, canes, varying size, physical well-being, sensory faculty, cognitive and emotional capacity, and even spiritual ability. All these are challenges for the mortal being and provide an opportunity to which a thoughtful church can respond.
- The visible sign of accessible provisions speaks loudly about a congregation’s commitment to care for “the least of these my brethren” (Matthew 25:40). Lack of attending to another’s need sends a clear message about a Christian’s commitment to pastoral care.
Liturgical consultant and colleague Robert Habiger speaks about the importance of understanding accessibility in terms of equivalency. Equivalency goes beyond just fulfilling code and achieving a minimum of access provision. Equivalency seeks to provide equal or equivalent experience for all worshippers. He argues that equivalency is central to the gospel message and the commission of the church. After all, a fully accessible space excludes no one. A space with barriers leaves some wanting.
Providing accessible provisions is a challenge in existing space; but it is possible with creativity and enough desire to solve obstacles to accessibility. While easier in new buildings, attaining accessibility still takes a desire to eliminate obstacles and still requires thoughtful planning.
Four key areas for ensuring that the worship experience, whether the place of worship or the liturgy within it, invites people of all abilities to participate.
Barrier-Free Liturgical Environment
Making sure that there is an accessible path from parking to the worship space, into the worship and to seating area, where there are places designated for people in wheelchairs, walkers or other assisting devices that aid mobility, is a bare minimum. Providing accessible access everywhere is a goal: to all levels, to every music area or place of proclamation, to every sacrament or symbol, and to any focal point within the worship.
Very rarely in life does one size fit all. As a congregation seeks to provide for all levels of ability, it is helpful to provide multiple and varying solutions. We often forget how many options are available to most parishioners. When I enter a worship space, I can choose most any seat in the assembly. In providing for people with access needs, providing multiple options preserves their dignity and provides equity. With varied ADA solutions each person can choose which option will afford them the fullest experience.
An environment that utilizes the full breadth of sensory provisions addresses the needs of people with a varying range of abilities. Areas for consideration: 1) thermally, offer the ability to control temperature and ventilation; 2) visually, providing the opportunity to regulate natural or artificial light, and with strategic use of the color palette; 3) aurally, have differing acoustic environments or audible assistance; and 4) tactilely, with a full range of texture within the interior palette. Technology is available that more easily controls sensory enhancement such as dimming systems and hearing assisting technology (loop systems and hearing devices). The breadth of sensory stimulus creates an opportunity for every person to feel comfortable in the worship space.
Sensual Variety in the Design of Liturgical
The design of multi-sensual liturgy can also invite people of varying abilities to participate. A range of sensory stimulation beyond just the spoken word and audible encounter in music gives every worshipper a more stimulating worship experience. Visual arts; liturgical movement and dance; fabric arts of decorations and vestments; tactile experience within the environment of worship; the scent of incense or candle; the taste of sacrament such as bread and wine; the feel of healing oil or water; each can stimulate the human and create opportunity to savor of the liturgy. The more senses that are addressed, the better. If a person lacks one sensation, the richness can be brought through other means.