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NEWS FEATURE: Project aims to make rural churches more accessible to disabled

c. 1998 Religion News Service UNDATED _”Knock, and it will be opened unto you,”Jesus once told a crowd of listeners. However, what if a man could not get up the steps to knock on the door? What if, once inside, a woman couldn’t hear the message? People with disabilities frequently face such challenges in entering […]

c. 1998 Religion News Service

UNDATED _”Knock, and it will be opened unto you,”Jesus once told a crowd of listeners. However, what if a man could not get up the steps to knock on the door? What if, once inside, a woman couldn’t hear the message?

People with disabilities frequently face such challenges in entering houses of worship, and in participating once inside.

But it is especially so in rural areas, where church buildings _ many of them several decades old _ often also serve as critical community gathering places: Votes are cast in churches, groups such as Boy Scouts and Cooperative Extension Service meet there, or town meetings might be held there. To be shut out of a church might well mean being shut out of a significant portion of community life.”There’s such a strong interest in getting into the church building, and yet a lot of (churches) are not accessible,”said Ned Stoller, rural assistive technology specialist for Purdue University’s Breaking New Ground Resource Center in West Lafayette, Ind.

In an effort to respond to the need, Breaking New Ground holds workshops around Indiana and works with individual churches. The one-day workshops address physical, communication and attitudinal barriers and how to overcome them on a limited budget.

The project began several years ago with a survey of farmers with spinal cord injuries that found over half of those surveyed reported church activities as their top community involvement, followed by recreational activities and farm organizations. By contrast, however, churches ranked as the least accessible buildings in their communities.

Perhaps surprisingly, it is the church parking lot that often presents the first obstacle, especially to people in wheelchairs if there are no spaces reserved for the handicapped. If not, there has to be an accessible path from the parking lot to the church.”If you have a gravel parking lot with big stones or a lot of loose gravel, even if there’s a special parking spot _ if they can’t get over the terrain, they can’t get into the church,”Stoller said.

Steps, of course, pose another problem.”Many churches, especially rural churches, are very antiquated,”said Ed Bell, a disabled farmer in Hagerstown, Ind., and consultant for Breaking New Ground.

A typical rural church architectural style is a half-flight of steps to the foyer, then a flight of steps to the sanctuary and another flight of steps to the basement, he said. Without ramps or lifts, a small rural church can seem like Mount Everest to someone with limited mobility.

Once inside the church, a person in a wheelchair needs a place to sit without blocking the aisle; a pew or two can be cut down to accommodate this, according to Breaking New Common Ground officials. Bathrooms need railings and extra-wide stalls. However, if a drinking fountain is too high, it doesn’t need to be replaced or lowered, Stoller said.”You can just put a Dixie cup holder beside it,”he said.”We try to present low-cost modifications, because a lot of small country churches that we deal with don’t have large budgets.” Communication barriers involve sight and sound; some churches add earphones to their sound systems. Others provide sign language interpretation, but a dark sanctuary can make it difficult for parishioners to see the interpreter’s fingers, or to read lips, according to Stoller and Bell.”Sometimes if a person has a hearing impairment and reads lips, and the preacher has a real bushy mustache, that’s a barrier to communication,”Stoller said.

Often the biggest barriers are attitudinal, he said. Many church leaders and members say they don’t have anyone with disabilities in their congregation, so accessibility isn’t a problem.”The fact of the matter is, (the disabled) probably aren’t coming to their churches because the church isn’t accessible, and they’re locked out,”he said.”If people in your community are going to Wal-Mart in their wheelchairs but not coming to your church, a lot of times the church community calls them shut-ins. They’re not shut in; they’re just shut out of the church.” Bell uses a wheelchair since a 1982 gunshot wound left him paralyzed.

He is doubly qualified for assisting churches with accessibility,”or maybe doubly handicapped, depending on how you look at it,”he said with a chuckle because he is also the son of a pastor who served many small country churches.

Not far from Bell’s farm is Sugar Grove Community Church, a non-denominational congregation with a Sunday attendance of about 100. The church, which has used earphones in the sanctuary for some time, added a switchback ramp to its 1892 building.

No one in the congregation uses a wheelchair at present, said Pastor Howard Addison, who has served on a panel at one of Breaking New Ground’s workshops. Still, the ramp provides easier access for others who find steps difficult. The ramp project was coordinated by a church member who is a contractor, and paid for by the congregation and some memorial funds, Addison said.

Charles Best of Zanesville, Ind., who lost a hand in a corn-picking accident 30 years ago and is”more or less”retired from farming, often consults with churches and represents Breaking New Ground at fairs and farm shows. His congregation, Zanesville United Methodist Church, is”very handicapped-accessible,”he said.”We don’t have any steps.” And Uniontown Church of Christ, in nearby Ossian, recently installed a ramp along with an addition to the building, Best said.”The congregation did it because they felt as though they were growing,”he said.

Making a church more accessible can seem like an expensive project, said Stoller, but it doesn’t have to be.”A lot of times, with some innovative ideas, it doesn’t cost much at all,”he said.

Using volunteer labor can be a big help in overcoming financial barriers, and some churches may also have access to grants or low-interest loans through their denominations.”Where there’s a need, if the hearts of the people are in it, they’ll find the funds,”Bell said.”Personally, I look at it as a mission project.”It’s a mission field where you don’t have to get on a boat or a plane to serve. It’s in our small towns and in our cornfields.” Added Stoller:”I think if people have the attitude that everyone should be welcome in their house of worship, then they’re going to do what needs to be done to get them in there,”Stoller said.


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