This document helps you to identify physical barriers to the participation of people with disabilities in your church. It then shows you how to overcome these barriers, creating a church which is open to all.
The way we do things in church often affects the participation of people with disabilities. A person with hearing loss shared her experiences:
"In some churches the speaker (preacher) likes to walk up and down the stage, he forgets that I have to see his lips, to lip-read, in order to following the preaching."
A parent of a 10 year old child with intellectual disability:
"Our daughter becomes a bit restless in Sunday school, but all you have to do is to call her name, fix her attention on the story, and she will be more attentive. However, it is difficult for the teachers to understand this".
A classic example of inaccessibility is the notice board outside a church that says:
However, a flight of stairs at the entrance prevents people using wheelchairs or crutches, or with mobility impairments from entering. This document helps you to be sensitive to issues of accessibility and will help people with disabilities to feel welcome. This process can be taken in steps. Much of what makes the church accessible does not cost anything, as it starts with acts of kindness, like offering to find a seat for someone or bringing them a cup of tea.
To make sure we're talking about the same thing, let's start with a definition of disability: According to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, Article 1:
"Persons with disabilities include those who have long-term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairments which in interaction with various barriers may hinder their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others."
There are numerous references to the Church in the Bible.
Ephesians 1: 22-23
God placed all things under His [Christ's] feet and appointed Him [Christ] to be head over everything for the church, which is His [Christ's] body, the fullness of Him [Christ] who fills everything in every way.
1 John 1:7
If we walk in the light, as He [Christ] is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, His Son, purifies us from all sin.
Romans 12: 4-5
For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.
1 Corinthians 12: 12 & 27
Just as a body, though one has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ.... Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.
From the above passages, we understand the word Church as referring to the collective body of believers in the Lordship of Jesus. The word "body" is instructive, as this implies that members will have different functions and skills. The ability of the Christian community to welcome persons with disabilities, and the ability of persons with disabilities to live joyfully in the midst of the church, is an important measure of the church's ability to live fearlessly and joyfully in the midst of a broken world.
2.3 What does the Bible say about the Church being open to everyone?
Jesus teaches us in Matthew 28: 19-20 "Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age." Jesus teaches that everyone needs to hear the gospel and become disciples. Romans 3: 22-23 teaches us that "righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God". The Church has a duty to minister the gospel to all, including people with disabilities. We can trust God to reveal His truth to people with severe multiple disabilities. An article published by the Reformed Church in America, refers to Matthew 25:35 where Jesus declares, "I was a stranger, and you welcomed me". The article compares persons with disabilities to strangers in the midst of the church (that is, to the extent they embody what may seem alien to their more able-bodied neighbour's), they can also represent [as all strangers do] the presence of Jesus in the midst of the church. The more the church grows in its capacity to welcome such persons, who are strangers, the more deeply the church will welcome and serve Jesus. People with disabilities assist the church to discover more deeply and powerfully the mystery of its existence; the diverse ways in which we are "fearfully and wonderfully made" (Psalm 139:14). The ability of the Christian community to welcome people with disabilities, and the ability of people with disabilities to live joyfully in the midst of the church, is an important measure of the church's ability to live fearlessly and joyfully in the midst of a broken world.
The Ninth Article of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities states:
"To enable persons with disabilities to live independently and participate fully in all aspects of life, State Parties shall take appropriate measures to ensure to persons with disabilities access, on an equal basis with others, to the physical environment, to transportation ... other facilities and services open or provided to the public ..."
Accessibility is not only about wheelchair access [fewer than 8% of people with disabilities are wheelchair users] but encompasses all disabilities, including physical impairments, sensory impairments, mental impairments and the aged. A few practical principles that may be helpful:
Become sensitive to the needs of people with disabilities. Befriend people with disabilities and become sensitive to their needs by simply asking what works for them, as one would do with any other friend. These are simple acts of kindness, as one would do for any friend or fellow believer. Be aware of your prejudices, which may influence your response.
Consult the building regulations which deal with the accommodation of people with disabilities. The National building regulations can be purchased and downloaded by clicking here >>
Learn from people with disabilities in your church. What will make life easier for them at church? Such changes often benefit other members. This means that when working for access for people with disabilities, one is working for universal access.
Let's talk nuts and bolts. You're committed to creating an accessible church and we'd like to help you with some of the practical steps you'll need to take. These are things like transport, accessible entrances, seating which makes it possible for everyone to participate, accessible toilets and notice boards that allow persons with disabilities to find their way independently.
For many people with disabilities, getting to church is probably their biggest hurdle. Their impairments make it impossible to walk or drive to church and if they do not have family members to bring them to church, they're stuck. Public transport is seldom accessible to people with disabilities and most public transport services operate sporadically on Sundays. Consider the following options:
Arrange a roster of drivers to collect people who need transport. This means that the burden of transport does not rest on the shoulders of one person or family.
Investigate the possibility of obtaining an accessible van in which wheelchair users can be transported together with their wheelchairs. This vehicle could be shared among a few churches or borrowed from a local disability organization.
If these arrangements cannot be put into effect every Sunday, consider implementing them once a month.
Accessible parking is important for people with mobility impairments, because it ensures their safety and allows them to get into the church building with relative ease. Consider the following points:
Reserve accessible parking bays near the entrance to the church so that people with disabilities do not have far to go, especially if the weather is bad.
Ensure that parking bays are clearly marked, so that people can see where to park.
Parking bays for people with disabilities need to be wider than normal parking bays. The reason is that there needs to be space for walkers, crutches and people who find it difficult to bend their legs. This is especially important for people who need to be able to transfer from their cars into wheelchairs. Without the extra width, the person can't open their car door completely and they are unable to pull the wheel chair next to the car seat.
Ensure that the parking bays are well lit. The surface should be level and paved.
Ensure that these accessible parking bays are not abused by people who don't need to park there.
Stairs and slopes are a challenge to people using wheelchairs or other mobility devices. When ramps are installed, make them as gentle as possible. The ideal is a ramp with a gentle grade, that is, a slope of with a "one-in-fourteen" gradient i.e. for every 100 millimetre rise in height, allow a horizontal distance of at least 1 400 millimetres. Ramps must not exceed a one-in-ten gradient i.e. for every 100 millimetre rise in height, allow a horizontal distance of at least 1 000 millimetres.
For example: if the steps are 600 millimetres high, the length of your ramp must be:
Gentle ramp [1:14] 600 x 14 = 8 400 millimetres long
Adequate railing should be installed, wherever needed for the comfort and safety of all people. Places to bear in mind are walkways, staircases and ramps. Handrails should be between 900 millimetres and 1 000 millimetres above the floor level, and should extend the full length of the ramp or walkway. Handrails must extend 300 millimetres beyond the start and end of a ramp or stairs.
Person with a cane and a wheelchair using the handrail Handrails may make life easier for others: people who are temporarily disabled, the elderly, or who have mobility difficulties.
As with everybody else, people with disabilities are entitled to choose where they would like to sit during the service. This choice is often denied to them, usually due to the physical limitations of the building and sometimes because ushers and stewards insist on them sitting in a certain place. Their choice will be determined by their needs. They may want to sit where they can hear the sermon or see the pulpit. For other people, their priority will be to sit with family and friends.
6.2 Seating requirements for wheelchair users and people using crutches or walkers.
Space for wheelchairs should be incorporated into the pews so that the wheelchair is not placed in the aisle. Space for wheelchairs can be created by removing chairs or by shortening sections of the pews.
The floor-space for wheelchair seating should be level
Family members should be able to sit with wheelchair users
There should be enough space to turn a wheelchair: 1 500 millimetres x 1 500 millimetres.
Projection screens should be visible, especially when people in front of the wheelchair user are standing.
Where there is fixed seating as above, floor space accessible to a person in a wheelchair must be set aside. It should be close to an exit. The wheelchair must not be placed in the aisle. Other people may want to use this space:
Parents and children with disabilities
Blind people with their guide dogs.
Enough turning space for wheelchair users Wheelchairs need at least 1 500 millimetres to turn. The distance between two rows of chairs must be at least 1 500 millimetres to allow the wheelchair to turn into space provided.
Wheelchairs need turning space. The turning dimensions should be considered when providing space amongst rows of chairs, doors, passages, toilets.
Ensure that it is possible for them to get to the communion rail if they choose to do so; or have an alternative solution available e.g. serving communion at a place in church which is accessible to all.
Many churches do not have accessible toilets and those that do often use them as storerooms. Accessible toilets at church are essential. Whilst none of your members may use wheelchairs, visitors attending funerals or weddings at your church may need accessible toilets. The paragraphs below set out the specifications for the toilet, the grab rails and the door.
A wheelchair user may want to use the toilet independently and therefore it must be possible to open the door without assistance. The diagram below illustrates the ideal, namely a sliding door. If that is not possible, the door should open outwards.
Accessible toilets should be clearly signposted
Light switches should be within reach for a wheelchair user, at a height of 900 millimetres - 1 100 millimetres above the floor.
Signage and notice boards should enable people with disabilities to find their way independently. Signs give information about direction, location, safety or form of action. A successful signage system minimizes anxiety and confusion and prevents people from getting lost. Signs should be visible, clear (easy to see and to understand), concise (simple, short and to the point) and consistent (signs meaning the same thing should always appear in the same manner). Signage (overhanging signs and pole-mounted signs) placed on the sidewalks or pathways are obstructions; they should be next to the accessible path and detectable.
Older, inaccessible church buildings may present a bigger challenge. Speak to congregations who have made their old buildings accessible. If you have already learnt some lessons in this regard, please contact us. We would like to learn from you.
In the case of church buildings which are national monuments, the advice of experts will be needed.
People with disabilities are aware that not all activities at church can be arranged according to their needs. Early morning or evening meetings may be difficult to attend. People with disabilities may need extra preparation time in the morning, making it difficult to attend early services. Evening functions are difficult for people with visual impairments. Being sensitive to these issues will go a long way in demonstrating the church's commitment to inclusivity.
ANNEXURE A: PARAPHRASED QUOTES FROM LEGISLATION REGARDING THE RIGHTS OF PEOPLE WITH DISABILITIES
1. SA CONSTITUTION: ACT No 108 of 1996: Bill of Rights
"No person may unfairly discriminate against anyone on the grounds of disability." "Everyone has inherent dignity and the right to have their dignity respected and protected." "Everyone has the right to an environment that is not harmful to their health or wellbeing."
2. PROMOTION OF EQUALITY AND PREVENTION OF UNFAIR DISCRIMINATION: ACT No 2000 of 2000
"No person may unfairly discriminate against any person on the ground of disability, including- (a) Denying or removing from them any supporting or enabling facility necessary to their functioning in society; (b) Contravening the code of practice or regulations of the South African Bureau of Standards that govern environmental accessibility."
3. NATIONAL BUILDING REGULATIONS and BUILDING STANDARDS ACT no 103 of 1977
SABS 0246:1993: Code of Practice deals with the accessibility of buildings to persons with disabilities
4. CONVENTION on the RIGHTS of PERSONS with DISABILITIES
(Ratified by SA Government April 2008) "To enable persons with disabilities to live independently and participate fully in all aspects of life, States shall take measures to ensure to persons with disabilities access, on an equal basis with others, to the physical environment and to facilities and public services. These measures, which include elimination of barriers to accessibility, apply to buildings, roads and transportation." "States shall take appropriate measures to ensure that private entities take into account all aspects of accessibility for persons with disabilities."
STANDARDS SOUTH AFRICA (a division of SABS). 2010. South African National Standard: The application of the National Building Regulations. Part S: Facilities for disabled persons. Pretoria: Standards South Africa.
Nothing about Us without Us by David Werner - HealthWrights 1998