Shouldn’t churches be the last places to discriminate against persons with disabilities?
A Holston Conference group is encouraging their fellow United Methodists to take an “accessibility audit” to determine if their churches are unintentionally shutting the doors to the one in four Americans with disabilities that impact life activities.
“People with disabilities need to be welcome and present and seen, especially in worship spaces, because there are so many other places where we are not fully seen,” said the Rev. Rachel Collins, pastor of Belspring United Methodist Church in Belspring, Virginia.
The chair of the Holston Disability Concerns Team, the Rev. Brian Burch, is trying to get church leaders to take a hard look at their buildings and systems to learn where they are prepared to accommodate persons with mobility, hearing and vision challenges -- and where they can improve.
Burch recently sent an email asking Holston church leaders to take an “accessibility audit” by January 15. For churches achieving high scores, a drawing will be held to award five congregations $100 each to donate to the mission of their choice.
Burch has since reset the deadline for February 10, with hope that more church leaders will participate.
“It is beyond time for us as Christians to meet the basic … level of accessibility and clearly declare our buildings and hearts are welcome,” Burch said.
The “Book of Discipline” calls United Methodist churches to take an annual accessibility audit, effective 2016. The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 prohibits public places in the U.S. from discriminating against persons with disabilities, yet churches are exempt from the law.
“Churches requested to be exempt, which is pretty sad, really,” said Burch, who has a visual disability.
The audit includes 59 descriptions or guidelines that help churches evaluate if they have adequate handrails, parking spaces and signage for people with mobility challenges, for example, or the ability to provide large-print bulletins with advance notice for persons with visual impairments. The audit is provided by the Disability Ministries Committee of The United Methodist Church.
Steve Richardson is a member at Church Street United Methodist Church and the parent of an adult son with disabilities. He says the reasons “why” churches should want to make their spaces more accessible is even more important than the “what” of how to go about it.
“The ‘why’ speaks to the character of the church and the congregation,” Richardson said. “It speaks to hospitality, inclusivity and being a welcoming church. It says to people, ‘We want you to be here. Please come. We want to include you. We value you.’”
Richardson said that helping his church become more accessible is a “longtime passion” for him and his wife, Mary Ellis Richardson. At Church Street in Knoxville, Tennessee, the Richardsons participate in a task force that uses the annual audit to identify improvements that can be made.
For example, in recent years Church Street has installed handrails to the chancel steps and signage to identify seating spaces where wheelchairs will fit comfortably. In September 2022, Church Street organized a “Disability Awareness Sunday” with preaching by the Rev. Hank Jenkins, a wheelchair user. The service included the unveiling of renovations and a new device enabling Jenkins and his wheelchair to be lifted from the nave/ sanctuary level to the main altar level of the chancel. Jenkins is a Lincoln Memorial University law student and a clergy member of the Missouri Annual Conference.
“It truly was a moving moment,” said Mary Ellis Richardson. “It was as if every member of the church was there lifting him up together, someone who previously didn’t have access to the altar.”
At Belspring, Collins said she wants to improve her church’s openness not only because one of her members is deaf, but also because her congregation includes older people who are hard of hearing. For years, a sign-language interpreter came to Belspring to accommodate the deaf church member. When the interpreter was no longer available, the church invested in a language-detection app that provides a transcript on an iPad based on what the pastor says into her microphone.
Recently, Collins noticed other church members were “gravitating” to sit behind the deaf church member so they could also read the iPad. The pastor applied for a $3,700 grant, which Belspring has received, to install two large screens in the sanctuary that will make the speech-to-text app (“Live Transcribe”) more accessible and visible to others. The grant was awarded by the United Methodist Committee on Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Ministries.
“We’re trying to make worship more accessible to the whole congregation and more inclusive for people who might not want to come out and say, ‘I can’t hear you on Sunday morning,’” Collins said.
Within the last few months, Collins was surprised to learn she needed surgery on her ear, which has resulted in partial loss of hearing that may not return. “The irony of being placed in this setting and to also have experienced what it’s like to have some loss of hearing is really poignant,” she said.
One in four U.S. adults – 61 million Americans – have a disability that impacts major life activities, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. With age, disability becomes more common, affecting about two in five adults age 65 and older. At Lennon-Seney United Methodist Church, the Rev. Leah Burns is also trying to make the church building more accessible for her aging congregation in Knoxville.
“If you are able to navigate and do things, you don’t necessarily think about sets of stairs, narrow doors and narrow aisles that keep people from accessing the church, especially those who use walkers or wheelchairs and also for parents with strollers,” Burns said.
Some of the changes are inexpensive or cost nothing, but some, like elevators, are “costly, and we don’t necessarily have that kind of money lying around,” she said. Consequently, Lennon-Seney is excited to have also received a grant that will allow the church to make needed changes with the help of a retired architect in the congregation.
“What we’ve been trying to do is to break down the barriers at Lennon-Seney,” Burns said.
When the Rev. Michael Vaughn filled out the accessibility audit for Gate City United Methodist Church, he was proud to realize church members who came before him had already ensured certain criteria had been met – for example, providing tables with a minimum of 27 inches of clearance on the underside to accommodate a wheelchair.
Even so, the audit helped the congregation realize that additional special parking spaces and signage are needed as they are repainting their parking lot, while also raising awareness of ways to welcome future worshippers in Gate City, Virginia.
“The big thing is curb appeal,” said Vaughn. “How are we set up for people who are not here yet? Sometimes we just seem to be set up for the people who are already here."
Find out more about the Accessibility Audit due by Feb. 10.
Find out about a grant application due March 1.
Make your church disability-friendly and accessible (Resource UMC)
Sign up for a free weekly email subscription to The Call. Holston Conference includes 842 United Methodist congregations in East Tennessee, Southwest Virginia, and North Georgia. Holston Conference's main offices are located in Alcoa, Tennessee.
Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newsletter.
UPDATE The Accessibility Audit deadline has been postponed to February 10. For those qualifying churches submitting their reports by the original January 15 deadline, they will be entered twice into the drawing for the mission prize money. You ...