Accessibility in Worship Architecture: Does your church welcome everyone?

Becoming an accessible church involves far more than installing a wheelchair entrance. It includes making design choices so anyone can access the platform and lead worship. A feature story exploring accessibility in churches.

Emily Gilbert moved from Wisconsin to Washington, D.C., during World War II. “I’m one of the ‘government girls,’ ” she says. Over the years she married, became a mom and grandma, and helped to found and lead a congregation.

When Seekers Church lost its lease on Embassy Row and decided to renovate a brownstone in the Takoma Park neighborhood, Gilbert spoke up.

“I held out very strongly for an elevator, a ramp, and an accessible bathroom. I’m very aware of people needing access, because I have a very good friend who’s a quadriplegic. When she helped write the Americans with Disabilities Act, people used to tell her, ‘Our building doesn’t need changes because we don’t have any handicapped people here.’

“And my friend would tell them, ‘Well, the reason you don’t is because people can’t get in your building,’ ” Gilbert recalls. During the years it took Seekers to make choices, raise funds, and move into its new space, Gilbert’s arthritis got worse.

Her experience mirrors what your church may be discovering. Some people are born with physical disabilities. Others acquire them by ailment, accident, or age. In every case, your church’s architectural choices speak as loudly, if not more, than its printed or spoken messages of welcome.

A sometimes costly commitment

Seekers Church, which grew out of the interdenominational Church of the Saviour, has “always been committed to being inclusive. For us this has meant doing what we can to include people of all ages in the life of the community,” says staff member Peter Bankson.

In their old building, they’d lifted people in wheelchairs up the stairs. Bankson says that including accessibility in their renovation was “a matter of principle and act of solidarity with our senior generation.”

On Sundays, Bankson and his wife, Marjorie, now drive Gilbert from her retirement community to church. They park next to the outdoor ramp. Gilbert uses the elevator to move between the lower level fellowship area and upper level sanctuary.

“We don’t have pews. We have chairs we can move around so the space can be used for concerts and other things. It’s easier for me to boost myself up from chairs that have arms, and there are enough chairs with arms for me to choose where to sit.

“Without these aids, I would have had to find another church. I’m 83 years old, the oldest in the congregation. I am the one who most needs this accessibility. But people realize that ‘the way we see Emily is the way we’ll be some day,’ ” Gilbert says.

Seekers is a worshiping community of about 50 people. Yet this small church chose to include sidewalk modifications, indoor and outdoor ramps, an elevator, moveable furniture, and more. How? “We tithe. We do it very seriously. Our goal is give away half and use the other half internally,” Gilbert explains.

Many groups have used the renovated building. “We often hear how exciting it is for other groups to use an old building that is accessible,” Bankson says.

More people than you’d expect

You might look around during worship to gauge which sorts of disabilities your congregation should address through architecture and design. But that wouldn’t give you the whole story, because many people who care about faith simply don’t go to church.

National Organization on Disability surveys show that

  • About 65 percent of all U.S. residents, both those with and without disabilities, say their religious faith is very important.
  • About 65 percent of those without disabilities attend religious services at least once a month, but only 47 percent of those with disabilities attend at least once a month. (The only people with disabilities in this survey were those who don’t live in institutions.)
  • People with very severe disabilities are more likely (73 percent) to say their religious faith is very important to them than people with slight disabilities (55 percent).

“You can’t be in disability ministry without knowing that disabilities overlap. For example, people with cognitive impairments may use wheelchairs. We call that ‘dual diagnosis,’ and some people have more than two.

“Disabilities include environmental, visual, physical challenges in many forms, hearing, autism, mental illness, and cognitive impairments. People with any of these run into barriers at church,” says Nella Uitvlugt, director of Friendship Ministries, which helps churches and organizations include people with cognitive impairments.

The power to include…or exclude

Uitvlugt says her congregation, Plymouth Heights Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, completed a renovation “that went beyond the ADA and tried to work at making it convenient. There’s a huge difference!”

For example, they removed side barriers from pews, placed pews further apart for people who use walkers, and included pew cutouts so people in wheelchairs can sit with their families.

“Keep in mind that accessibility means more than removing physical barriers. In some churches, you can get your chair into the sanctuary, but other barriers prevent you from being a full part of worship.

“What I’m getting at is that we as supposedly able-bodied folks take on the role of having the power to include or exclude. It isn’t ours biblically, but we do it anyway,” Uitvlugt says.

Plymouth Heights installed a lift so that pulpit and platform, as well as the main sanctuary floor, are accessible to people who use wheelchairs or walkers or have trouble with steps.

And recently, instead of just having people with cognitive impairments do special music for a disability awareness service, Plymouth Heights asked Friendship participants to lead the congregation in worship.

Learn More

Read an interview with Gordon and Mary Cosby, who founded Church of the Saviour.

Listen to architect Robert Nickola’s comments on accessibility challenges in large Protestant churches.

Take this quiz to assess your church’s barriers. Follow tips to make worship more welcoming for people with disabilities, starting with ushers and greeters.

Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors offers insightful curricula, inclusion awareness ideas, and online videos. This is a ministry of Pathways Awareness Foundation.

Check out these resources on disability and worshipReformed Worship has excellent articles on worshiping with people of varied abilities or who deal with deafnessadvanced age, or cognitive difficulties.

Browse related stories on baptism and architecturedisability and worship, and worship for those withdementia.

Start a Discussion

How well does your church welcome people who use wheelchairs or have trouble walking?

  • Ask a wheelchair user to help you evaluate every area of your church, from parking lots and entrances to the nave, classrooms, sanctuary, and worship platform or chancel. Which areas are not easily accessible?
  • How often do people who use wheelchairs, walkers, or canes help lead worship in your church, whether through preaching, leading prayers or litanies, reading Scripture, serving communion, or doing liturgical dance? (Yes, you can dance in a wheelchair.)
  • If your church is fully accessible for wheelchair users, have you made a point of reaching out to wheelchair users who don’t regularly attend worship? What other services would you need to provide to help them get from their homes to your church?
  • Have you sometimes used the value of stewardship as an argument against removing barriers for fully including people with disabilities?

Share Your Wisdom

What is the best way you’ve found to include people who use wheelchairs, walkers, and canes?

  • Did you gather a group to evaluate language (“deaf and dumb,” “crippled,” “confined to a wheelchair”) in sermons, prayers, liturgies, and songs that make people with disabilities feel less than equal?
  • If you focused on reaching out to faithful people who have a disability, what worked best…or not…in welcoming them into full community within your church?
  • Can you share visuals, songs, dramas, or other creative worship resources that were developed by members with disabilities—and convey an inclusive worship message?
  • Did you tour other churches, both new and renovated, that do a great job of making room for people who use wheelchairs, walkers, and canes? Will you tell us about the best design ideas you observed?

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