Accessibility Often Grows From a Small First Step

At First Unitarian Universalist (UU) Church, Columbus, OH (485 members), the revelation came when a member who uses a wheelchair couldn't get up on the platform for a birthday recognition. At First Unitarian Church, Pittsburgh, PA (320), a member who works with people with disabilities wanted more of them to attend her church. In both cases, individuals who saw a need helped their congregations be more inclusive.

Many of our congregations are building ramps, adding hearing devices and large-print hymnals, lowering pay phones, and installing elevators, but there are many others where people with disabilities people cannot be a part of services because they cannot get in the building.

The Columbus UU congregation is helping to set the standard for access for people with disabilities. It has two accessible bathrooms, a ramp in the sanctuary, hearing devices, and its Sunday service is signed for the hearing-impaired. Many of the changes grew out of deliberations around a 1992 building addition, coupled with members' experiences at General Assembly (GA) '92 where an anti-racism resolution was passed. "We just agreed that we wanted to be inclusive and diverse," said Eleanor Helper, member of the Inclusiveness/Diversity Committee.

First Unitarian, Pittsburgh, began work in May on a major renovation to its 100-year-old building, including accessibility improvements. Mary Ruth Kelsey helped form the original proposal. "I work with people with disabilities and I was just appalled that we weren't accessible," she said. "People said they didn't see why we needed to do this because we didn't have any members with disabilities. Well, that's because they can't get in."

To educate members a video was made showing the difficulty a person with a disability had in moving about the church. The renovation will include the designation of two parking spaces for people with disabilities, a long sidewalk to an entrance that avoids a flight of stairs, an elevator to all three levels and two new unisex bathrooms.

Three of the Unitarian Universalist Association's (UUA) twenty-three districts have accessibility committees: Central Midwest, Connecticut Valley and Pacific Southwest. Jacqui James, the UUA's Anti-Oppression Education and Resources Director, recommends that congregations that are considering accessibility do the following:

  • Set up an Accessibilities Committee that includes people with disabilities.
  • Conduct an audit of architectural, attitudinal, and communications barriers.
  • In services, say, "Please stand as you are willing and able," rather than, "Let us all stand now and sing..."
  • Require people to use a microphone when speaking to a large group.

The Americans With Disabilities Act, 1992, requires that public buildings be accessible to persons with disabilities. Churches without day care facilities are exempt unless included by city codes. But many congregations decide to make the changes for their own members and community groups that use their facilities.

First Unitarian Society, Newton, MA (362) made its ground floor accessible by installing a power door opener and renovating a set of bathrooms to accommodate wheelchairs. First Unitarian Church of St. Louis, MO (474), recently installed a FM radio loop and portable hearing devices for the hearing-impaired.

Half of the members of the UU Fellowship, Decatur, IL (75), learned basic sign language to communicate with three deaf members. Several are qualified to sign Sunday services. The fellowship also replaced its doorknobs with levers to aid members with arthritis and lowered drinking fountains and a pay phone.

Helen Bishop, district executive for Central Midwest, sees both sides of the accessibility issue. She uses braces, crutches, and sometimes a wheelchair because of childhood polio. She understands that many struggling congregations can't afford to retrofit their old buildings. But there are other things they can do. "A large-print order of service costs five cents. And church newsletters should describe the ways the congregation is accessible." As a starting point, she recommends that congregations use the adult Religious Education (RE) curriculum, Weaving the Fabric of Diversity, to work on attitudes of fear, apprehension and uneasiness toward people with disabilities.

Every congregation that moves toward accessibility eventually has a moment of recompense. Bishop describes such a moment at the DuPage UU Church, Naperville, IL (325), which modified a restroom and installed an elevator. "The first time the lift was used, a man who had been carried up to the sanctuary many times in his wheelchair got into the elevator and disappeared. They finally found him exploring the RE classrooms on the lower level. `It's the first time I've ever seen this part of our church,' he explained."


  • See the Unitarian Universalist Association's Disability & Accessibility Resources.
  • See the UU World, July/August 1996, Congregational Life and Leadership page, for ways to make your congregation more accessible. Also, September/October 1997, for an interview with Nancy Mairs.
  • That All May Worship: An Interfaith Welcome to People with Disabilities, Ann Rose Davie and Ginny Thornburgh.
  • From Barriers to Bridges: A Community Action Guide for Congregations and People with Disabilities, Janet Miller Rife and Ginny Thornburgh. Builds on That All May Worship to help people with disabilities fully participate in the worship, study, service and social activities in their congregations.
  • Weaving the Fabric of Diversity, adult RE program.
  • Large-print hymnals.

These publications are available through the UUA Bookstore, (800) 215-9076.