Churches where no wheelchairs go

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'Accessible Churches' by Chris JohnstonDuring a recent family holiday we visited a well known Australian big city Catholic cathedral. Upon seeing the series of steps at the front, we looked for disability access and were rewarded with the familiar stylised wheelchair symbol. We proceeded uphill to find the side entrance also had steps.

Continuing on, we made our way to the back of the church, where we discovered a long ramp leading to a door. We rang the bell, and waited. And waited. A security guard patrolling the perimeter found us, and a short while later met us inside. We finally entered the sacred building.

Later that day, a disability advocate shared the story of a discussion with representatives of a local church, regarding disability access to a church building. The representatives said providing access was not an issue for their congregation, because it had no members with mobility issues.

The advocate gently explained that perhaps the design of the church building precluded people who had movement difficulties from attending.

From personal experience, I am aware of the cost of building modifications to improve accessibility. No doubt costs are even more prohibitive for buildings designed for wide communities, or of heritage value. Yet there are simple changes churches can offer people with mobility difficulties.

Well-signposted disability car parks are a must. Where it is necessary to walk, hobble, or wheel a distance to a special entrance, hand rails and cheery signs along the way help the path seem short. If assistance is required to enter, assign someone to be present to provide support.

In certain cases, temporary ramps allow access to wheelchairs and walking frames. Allocated spaces for wheelchairs reduce fears about 'being in the way'. Movement is made easier if aisles are wide enough to accomodate both a wheelchair, and someone mobile to walk around it.

Some of these suggestions cost money; but money is spent on providing music, technology, art and other things that subtly invite people to participate. Compromises on updating or replacing resources, or questioning the necessity of new purchases, could release funds to build a more accessible church.

Some years ago, our parish catered for the extra numbers anticipated at Easter by adding a chair to the end of each row, and including extra rows of chairs at the back of the church and in the foyer. Unfortunately, this had the unintended consequence of relegating people with mobility issues, injuries or small children to the periphery of the gathering as aisles were reduced to narrow tracks.

One can speculate what message could inadvertently be inferred by people who may be attending church for the first time in a long while.

In London, the Anglican Church developed strategies to ensure that people with disabilities are considered in worship. The Anglican Church in Australia is also working to enable greater participation by people with all kinds of disabilities in the life of the church. Churches are willing to take up the challenge, and an evaluation process forms part of the approach.

It is heartening to see similar moves in Australian Catholic churches. The Australian Catholic Bishops established a Disability Council as part of the Bishops Commission on Pastoral Life. This signalled the priority and importance of addressing issues of disability in the Church, and includes resources to assist the involvement of people with intellectual impairments as well as physical needs.

A new Mass translation in easy English would have made a welcome addition to these strategies 

While entry to the aforementioned cathedral was not particularly wheelchair-friendly, we were pleased to see there were wide aisles and other technology designed to facilitate participation, such as large flat screens attached to pillars that could assist people with vision or hearing impairments.

There is a story in the Gospel of Luke in which the friends of a paralysed man could not find a way to bring him into a crowded building where Jesus was. So they climbed onto the roof and lowered him on a stretcher. These friends worked hard to ensure that their friend did not miss out on meeting Jesus.

Church members can take a cue from this example, by ensuring they also bring people with injury, illness, impairment or disability to the heart of their communities.


Moira Byrne GartonMoira Byrne Garton is a PhD student in political science at the Australian National University, and a policy analyst. She is strongly engaged with disability issues. 

Topic tags: Moira Byrne Garton, churches, accessibility, mobility, wheelchairs, disability

 

 

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Existing comments

Hi Moi - do you know about Luke 14 ministry?
http://www.cbmi.org.au/content/what-we-do/luke-14
cheers,
--Sam
Sam Paior | 23 May 2011


Thank you Sam -

Unfortunately, I didn't know about Luke 14 Ministry. (It's disappointing when I discover something that would have made a wonderful inclusion in an article).

Thanks for sharing the link here. Hopefully it will raise awareness of Luke 14 more broadly.
Moira Byrne Garton | 23 May 2011


On Sunday I visited our Cathedral for the RCIA Paschal celebration. I was accompanied by my grandson in his stroller. I also could not get in the cathedral except with kind assistance of passers by. I asked an usher, surely you have a ramp and was instructed to see the security man who then unbolted the door with the ramp. This unfriendly wheeled access is certainly just another restriction to independence...but in God's house?
Marguerite Martin | 24 May 2011


Good points! As australia's church going population is becoming more senior you may find some more advocates. In countries where many suffer war injuries Catholic churches need to remember the points made here too.
denisecoghlan | 25 May 2011


As a priest with a significant motor disability I applaud this article. Fortunately the two churches where I regularly say Mass both have quite good disability access. The Heritage Victoria website provides excellent examples of how heritage buildings can be made more accessible - often fairly easily, but not necessarily cheaply!
Geoff King | 25 May 2011


Moira, I appreciate your optimistic appraisal of the Church's growing awareness and openness to accessibility and the built environment. Observing comments made by employees of the Adelaide Catholic Education Office around their decision to avoid (or delay as long as possible) the allocation of funds (including the Government’s BER grants) to make new school buildings accessible, the comment of one school principal summarises well the attitude of many, and illustrates the need for dramatic structural change: "Teaching and learning has to take precedence over proving building access". Thanks again, Moira, for keeping the conversation about access alive.
Shane O'Dea | 26 May 2011


Moira, had your party approached the Cathedral from the North, rather than the South, then this story would not have been so dramatic, however, access to St Mary's requires a balance between heritage, security and access issues.

I am afraid the wait can sometimes be associated with the distance a staff member may have to travel - if you are in luck, the sacristan may be at hand.

I think the point in Luke is that, despite the physical barriers, access to Jesus is found via people who share the Faith and not just ramps and doors.

As an aside, I was recently at a Organ recital at the Sydney Town Hall and a number of differently gifted people were in attendance and would acclaim the completion of each piece vocally. When a lull during a piece occurred, some would acclaim early, and I left my seat to assure the carer who was heading for the exit with their charge, to stay and not worry if anyone was 'offended' - it was a free concert after all and it was a big room and the 'offended' were better able to get up and move!
James Knight | 26 May 2011


Moira, I appreciate your optimistic appraisal of the Church's growing awareness and openness to accessibility and the built environment.

Observing comments made by employees of the Adelaide Catholic Education Office around their decision to avoid (or delay as long as possible) the allocation of funds (including the Government’s BER grants) to make new school buildings accessible, the comment of one school principal summarises well the attitude of many, and illustrates the need for dramatic structural change: "Teaching and learning has to take precedence over proving building access".

Thanks again, Moira, for keeping the conversation about access alive.

Shane O'Dea | 27 May 2011


It seems that James Knight has missed the point about equality of access for all, regardless of disability. Why was the only "accessible" door to St Mary's Cathedral locked anyway and located through a back entrance? Where is the dignity and independence in that? Were the doors at the front and sides of the cathedral also locked during the daytime? What sort of messages do these barriers to access by people with disabilities send about how we are valued and welcomed as parishioners or visitors by the church hierarchy?
Joan Hume | 30 May 2011


Thanks for the article Moira. In the Uniting Church we have been pushing this issue for a long time, and submitted a Disability Action Plan to the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission back in 2003. We are looking to renew it asap. We are now encouraging dialogue with other faith traditions to also explore inclusion, and recently at a forum here the Buddhist Council of Victoria launched an audit check-list of its temples, arising from this dialogue. Your readers may also be interested to know of http://blogs.victas.uca.org.au/disabilityinclusion/
Thanks for highlighting this important issue
Andy Calder
Disability Inclusion

Andy Calder | 08 August 2011


Although, to be completely fair many inroads have been, and are being, made in churches, as well as in general in regard to being inclusive of people with disabilities, I've been to the U.S about seven times now, and we sure have a long way to go in catching up to them in regards to being inclusive of all peoples, including, in this case, people with a disability. In saying that, I remain optimistic that things will change, as people are abandoning exclusive fundamentalist doctrines, in favour of being inclusive of all.
Phillip Smith | 30 September 2011


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