Written by Grant Sontag
Once, after suffering a stroke in 1996, I was invited to be the guest preacher in a UCC congregation. Because I do not see well enough to drive and have a physical handicap as well, my driver dropped me off next to a small, blue-painted ramp that led up to the church's side entrance. Due to the ramp's shortness, steep pitch and lack of handrails, I had a hard time negotiating it.
When I mentioned my problem with the ramp, several parishioners came up to me to inquire what was wrong. In their minds, since they had set aside handicapped parking spaces and put in an adjacent ramp, that took care of the problem. They were unaware that, according to the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), for every one inch in elevation, a ramp must extend one foot. Thus the "ramp" at this church, probably six feet long for a 10-inch rise, really should have been 10 feet long, as well as much wider in order to accommodate a wheelchair or scooter.
Persons with disabilities face two major problems in many of our churches. First, ignorance of the ADA guidelines is widespread. For example, who knows that the recommended height for handrails is 32" from the base of steps or top of ramps? Much useful information is contained in the booklet, "Is Everyone Welcome?"
Second, some of the main barriers are attitudinal barriers. A few examples:
Do you consider obesity as a disability? Are your doorways, hallways, chairs, and, yes, bathroom stalls, wide enough for someone who is extremely heavy?
Do you know that depression and other mental and emotional disorders are disabilities, rendering the affected person unable to perform some everyday tasks?
Have you installed doorways wide enough for wheelchairs or scooters without installing an automatic opening device?
Is there a designated space inside the sanctuary for wheelchairs other than at the back of the sanctuary?
And, what may be the largest attitudinal barrier of all, the fears that many of us have: fear of people different than ourselves, fear of the needs of others, and, ultimately, fear of our own vulnerability and dependency. For these, a change of heart is needed; this can come about only through conversion, provided by the grace of God that turns uninformed hearts—even well-intentioned ones—into open, informed, life-giving organs.
"Is Everyone Welcome? A Guide to Ministries with Persons with Disabilities," is only one of several helpful pieces contained in a set of resources, "That All May Worship and Serve." Free from the UCC Disabilities Ministries: 800-325-7061.Other pieces contained in the packet include, "The Local Church and the ADA," "Categories of Hearing Loss," "Who Are the Mentally Ill?," "Tell Me It's Cancer, That I Can Handle," "Multisensory Worship Ideas" (helpful for "Access Sunday," Oct. 14.), General Synod resolutions on persons with disabilities (PWD), and a helpful list of further resources.
The Rev. Grant F. Sontag is a member of UCC Disabilities Ministries. Currently unemployed, he resides in California while awaiting a call to parish ministry.