This summer, I sprained my ankle the day before one of my big trips. Temporarily unable to put any weight on it, I made my way through airports with the help of electric cart drivers and wheelchair pushers — a whole population that had heretofore been largely invisible to me. They were always there; I just hadn’t thought about them much before.
Often “out of sight” does mean “out of mind.” I’m reminded of a past visit to a beautiful church built in the 1920s. To use the main entrances, however, one had to climb several flights of stairs. I asked a member how parishioners who used wheelchairs entered the church. “Oh, we don’t have any here,” he said blithely.
To be fair, such a situation can be challenging, particularly with older buildings that have little room for modifications. I’ve served in multiple churches where the music ministry has led from a choir loft, accessible only by a narrow set of stairs. If and when you’re unable to climb the stairs, you’re essentially unable to participate in music ministry. I was thoroughly stymied early in my career by a musician who used a wheelchair — and I had no answer for her, which I regret.
Making a church accessible is a challenge because of the many ways that people have for coping with limitations — physical, sensory, and otherwise. We’ve all become used to ramps in tandem with stairs. I’ve seen railings installed on the sanctuary stairs and shorter pews that leave room for wheelchairs. Large-print hymnals are reasonably common, and there’s been great growth in the number of sign-language interpreters. What other ways have you seen to accommodate parishioners? Have you seen particularly creative or elegant solutions?
I’ve also heard complaints about most of these types of accommodations — the ugliness of a railing, say, or the distraction of an interpreter. Are these fair complaints? What can our response be to people who raise them?