Open discussion: Accessible worship

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?


  1. When I broke my leg in a few places in 1997, I was non-ambulatory for over 2 months. Once I was able to get back to church courtesy of dear friends, I encountered something I never noticed before: how invisible you are in a wheelchair – wheelchairs are consigned to peripheral vision for many people as just something to avoid. People who normally would socialize with me would not see me in a crowded coffee hour, because my face was out of their field of vision, in the wrong place, as it were. I knew before that, due to many years of dealing with elderly relatives, that when you talk to someone in a chair, you crouch or sit down next to them; I just never fully realized how important that was.

    My parents are 87, and my mother is wheelchair bound in public due to severe macular degeneration (she is ambulatory with a walker in places that are safe from being jostled). In their parish, there are only a couple of places they can sit, and only one of them does not involve obstruction of communion station flow. They have to get to church at least 20 minutes ahead of the crowd in order to not have that one spot taken; which is a trial on elderly bladders, btw. (I’ve noticed in many communities how the quick dispersal and distribution of communion is prioritized strongly over access issues like this.) Also, they have to leave their spot after the communion prayer to get to the exit so that they have a chance of getting to the car and having space to disassemble the chair without being stampeded. (Btw, my mother’s hearing is such that PA systems were hard for her to discern, so she was one of those people who subscribes to large-print missalettes to follow the prayers and readings – it’s only in the past year that she can no longer read them.)

    Sure, my parents have valid excuses from their preceptual obligation. But going to Mass is one of the few activities my mother can do outside their lifecare community, and they need it not only to feed their spirit but to feed their social being too.

  2. My church doesn’t have too many of the issues you describe, Karl, being a post-ADA building and quite open. Sign-language interpretation is offered one Mass per weekend [Saturday night, as it happens] and, while it’s down near the front, doesn’t pose a significant distraction, at least not that I’ve ever heard anyone complain. The front couple of rows of seating are not pews, but individual chairs that can be moved to accommodate various needs. We also have wheel-chair bound parishioners who sit near the back, where there are also some chairs set up away from the center bank of pews. Those who can’t manage the Communion line have it brought to them – identifying those people is part of the usher’s job, and they generally do it quite well. We provide a few amplification headsets for those who need them, and they seem to work; the bigger issue is that our priests tend to speak too fast. It’s quite possible to out pace the speaker system, and they both do it regularly. My own hearing is quite good, so for me it’s a matter of going to fast to really absorb the sometimes worthy message, but for an 88 year old friend it’s a matter of getting the message at all, since they’re outracing her hearing aid.

    I think that access issues can usually be handled reasonably gracefully, but it does sometimes mean changing the appearance of a venerable space. Too bad. People are more important. And a graceful management doesn’t have to mean front and center, or destroying a space altogether. Dignified compromises are in order in older buildings, and newer ones shouldn’t have the problem in the first place.

  3. In terms of responding to complaints about such accommodations, I remember several years ago having my attention drawn to article 293 of the GIRM (I’ll quote the 2007 Australian edition):

    “A proper arrangement of a church and its surroundings that appropriately meets contemporary needs requires attention not only to the elements related more directly to the celebration of the sacred actions but also to those things conducive to the appropriate comfort of the faithful that are normal in places where people regularly gather.”

    As it was suggested to me at the time, if your local shopping centre/mall or cinema provides facilities such as ramps/lifts for access, tactiles for the vision impaired, hearing aid loops, toilets, baby change tables and even air conditioning, then they should be included in church buildings.

    Interestingly, sign language interpreters are rare in liturgical celebrations here in Australia. I’ve only ever seen it happen once, and that was for the accommodation on an invited guest who had an interpreter accompany them. Again, if subtitles are provided on television programs for the hearing impaired, then they should be able to expect the parish community to support their full, conscious and active participation; participation which is their duty and their right. While I’ve had limited experience of sign language interpreters, I think I would find it to be far less intrusive than some of the possible alternatives. I know how much it drives me mad when parishes with projection systems display every last word of the Mass.

  4. Until a few years ago, I was a member of a parish that had a fully accessible church building. There was even a curved driveway right up to the front door allowing people to enter the building without stepping over even a raise threshold.

    The choir sat in the congregation over to one side, leading rather than dominating the singing. Interpreters for the deaf took turns at the 9:00 Sunday Mass and they also were over to one side, readily visible but not blocking anyone’s view.

    My parish was combined with another, and upwards of a million dollars was spent refurbishing the century old building at the other parish. Part of that money was spent to install a lift to the choir loft. The handicapped entrance is in an attached building, and requires the use of an elevator and passage through some winding halls to reach the church. The main entrances to the church involve stairs that are so steep that the custom at funerals is to take the coffin out the side door to the elevator.

    I attended Mass at that building 3 times, but felt very remote from the proceedings up there in the choir loft. The straw that broke the camel’s back for me was the installation of a television screen for the the choir so we could better see Mass. Others left because they spent Mass in fear of falling from the choir loft, or of getting stuck in the lift.

    I now drive 10 miles away to another parish where I can sing in the choir and be part of the congregation.

    If there is any moral at all to this story, I guess that it would be that the first step to reasonable accommodation would be to listen to the people you’re providing for. Throwing money at the problem is the wrong step.

  5. Unfortunately churches built in recent decades have problems, too.

    When I was on pastoral council recently, we often discussed: complaints from people who could not hear clearly, complaints about lighting from people who could not see well, and complaints about insufficient handicapped parking. While these were problems with the physical plant, they reminded me of the Gospel, and people in need of healing for their blindness, deafness, and lameness. Jesus appeared to be as concerned with their physical problems as with religious problems (although our homilies regularly spiritualize these problems).

    These were all well founded complaints; unfortunately solving the sound and lighting problems were both very, very expensive. Makes one wonder how buildings get built with such problems?

    Mainly these problems were from the elderly, and our parishes will increasingly have more elderly with these and similar problems. John Allen has written well that the advantages of having a more elderly population far outweigh the problems.

    Parishes should think about themselves as retirement communities. When people (mostly in their early eighties) begin to need a lot of help, their children (mostly in their early sixties) have not quite come to retirement. However, many people in the parish in their late sixties and early seventies could help. They should provide a parish support system and services, knowing that in another decade or two they will need to be supported.

    Unfortunately building parish community (love of neighbor) is not given priority by many pastoral staff since it was half way down the list of things being done well in the Vibrant Parish Life Study. While the people themselves want more community, someone has to provide leadership. Usually the pastoral staff needs some one they trust enough to take over the job so they don’t have to do any work.

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