As we continue to return to normalcy beyond the COVID-19 pandemic, now is a great time for congregations to review their physical campus to assess how accessible the facility is for both members and the community. Are there improvements that could be made while the building is either closed or in limited use?
Studies have shown that although persons with disabilities identify faith as “very important” or “somewhat important” at comparable levels to persons without disabilities (87% and 84% respectively), a person with physical limitations is less likely to attend worship when compared to a person without disabilities (47% and 65% respectively). 1
Architects and property owners use two guidelines when assessing accessibility requirements. The Americans with Disabilities Act is a federal law that identifies “what” accessibility requirements are for individual buildings. The American National Standards Institute (ANSI), used in Wisconsin and many other states, defines “how” to implement accessibility requirements.
Although the task and review of your campus may seem daunting, you might be surprised that many improvements are simple, inexpensive and can be completed incrementally. The best approach to reviewing your campus is to experience the campus sequentially, starting in the parking lot, and working your way through the front doors and into the worship space. Invite members of your congregation or community with limited abilities to participate and identify areas in need of improvement. Let’s take a closer look at what features would welcome people of varying ability:
As We Approach the Church:
- Provide the proper number of accessible wheelchair spaces closest to the church entrance.
- Ensure the sidewalk or path from parking to front doors is fully accessible, including curb cuts and ramps as necessary.
- Any ramps you have along the path should be at a slope no greater than 1:12.
- Any handrails you have for stairs or ramps should be mounted at a height between 34” – 38” with proper extensions at the top and bottom of the stairs and ramps.
- Provide auto door operators at any entrances that are either too heavy to pull open or do not have the proper clearance on the pull side of the door.
As We Enter the Church:
- Provide door levers rather than door knobs at all entry doors.
- Confirm all drinking fountains and mailboxes are within proper reach ranges for those in a wheelchair.
- Provide multiple heights for coat racks and shelves.
- Avoid any obstructions mounted to walls that could become an obstacle for a wheelchair-bound individual or a vision-impaired individual. Examples may include open spaces below stairwells, or drinking fountains extending into a corridor.
As We Enter the Worship Space:
- Maintain at least 36” of width for all sides and main aisles.
- Provide full accessibility to all areas of the worship space, including access to the liturgical elements such as the font and altar.
- Offer a variety of seating options for wheelchair-bound individuals that don’t stick out into the aisle. Those options should be located throughout the seating area.
Other Support Areas to Consider:
- Provide grab bars in all toilet compartments.
- Verify dispensers for soap and paper towels are within reach ranges for wheelchair-bound individuals.
- Ensure portable furniture, such as tables, have proper clearances and heights.
Many of the items previously listed can be improved in a simple manner, without significantly moving walls or doors. In addition to the physical barriers to be reduced, what other services can your church provide to strengthen your ministry to those with limited disabilities? Maybe your congregation can develop a list of potential improvements by priority and cost. Architects are often available to provide a full assessment of your campus including low-, mid-, and higher-cost solutions. For a more thorough checklist, consider using the Accessibility Audit from United Methodist Church. Their list defines many more opportunities for improvement and provides measurements as needed (see link below).
- National Organization of Disability (NOD) and Harris Interactive Survey, 2000 study. Likely to attend church considered as at least once per month.
- Accessibility Audit from the United Methodist Church: https://www.gcfa.org/media/1348/umc_accessibility_audit_2018.pdf.