The Accessible Church: A Whirlwind Virtual Tour
General Assembly, Past General Assemblies

General Assembly 2006 Event 2017

Sponsor: Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) Staff

Presenter: Dr. Devorah Greenstein, UUA Accessibilities Program Associate

According to the General Assembly (GA) program guide, accessibility is more than a ramp and large-print hymnals, it "reflects an attitude of creativity, radical hospitality, and genuine invitation."

The Rev. Dr. Devorah Greenstein, the Unitarian Universalist Association's Accessibilities Program Associate, opened the workshop with a chalice lighting and a reading from Singing the Living Tradition (#442 by Rev. Richard S. Gilbert):

We bid you welcome, who enter this hall as a homecoming,

Who have found here room for your spirit.

Who find in this people a family.

Whoever you are, whatever you are,

Wherever you are in your journey.

We bid you welcome.

Despite this being an early morning workshop, more than 50 people attended. Greenstein opened with an invitation for participants to share their stories and why they chose to come to this workshop. From ministers to administrators, from lay-leaders to professional psychologists, from people in wheelchairs to people with family members using wheelchairs, from people with visible to those with invisible disabilities, everyone had a story or two to share. By sharing these stories, participants found out from one another what worked and didn't work in their congregations.

Some of the problems are physical barriers, particularly with old, historic church buildings. Others are logistical - the location of a key to an elevator kept too high for a person in a wheelchair to reach, for example, so that it could be "kept out of the reach of children." Still others are attitudinal.

"It's not skin color, the shape of our bodies, or whom we love that's the issue.

Is it a long walk from anywhere in your parking lot to your front door?"

—from Perspectives on Disability: A UU Curriculum for Adults by Rev. Laurie Thomas

As Unitarian Universalists of faith living our first Principle to "affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every persons," accessibility is a theological imperative, a civil right and a social justice issue.

Greenstein led workshop participants through a "virtual tour" of a church by mentally going through an accessibility check list and asking questions:

  • Is there public transportation to your church? If so, are bus schedules available? If not, are there car-pools and is that information available? What are the barriers to a person unable to drive? Is your parking lot flat or hilly? Is it a long walk from get from anywhere in your parking lot to your front door? Are there tripping hazards in your parking lot? Do you have trees and benches? Are your sidewalks obstacle-free? Is there a clearly-marked accessible entrance? Is your door heavy (more than 5 pounds) and is there an electric door-opener?
  • Are there rugs and floor mats inside that are more than a half-inch thick with corners that might trip a person with a walker? Are water fountains, coat racks and telephones too high for a person in a wheelchair to reach? Are there cut-outs in your pews for wheelchairs with seats next to them reserved for the companions of people in wheelchairs? Do you have chairs with arms and long-enough leg-rooms for people using canes?
  • Is your chancery accessible and your pulpit's height adjustable? Is your sanctuary fragrance-free? If you say your sanctuary is fragrance-free, do you use scented candles for sharing Joys and Concern and scented soaps in your bathroom? Are your accessible bathrooms truly accessible?


Reported by KokHeong McNaughton; edited by Jone Johnson Lewis.

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