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Accessibilities Improvements Help Entire Congregation

At First Unitarian Universalist Church, Rochester, MN (322 members), people who used wheelchairs had to be pushed up a steep hill to get into the sanctuary. And then they still couldn't get to other parts of the building without help.

It was an awkward situation. Other people worried that if they became disabled, they'd not be able to attend church. So they did something about it. A major renovation in 2000 was partly inspired by accessibility concerns.

"The biggest concern was that our elderly members weren't always able to come to church, and we were embarrassed when someone would come who couldn't use the stairs," says Beth Atkinson, former president. "They had to be pushed up a hill. We were losing potential members because of this issue."

The congregation raised $650,000 with a capital campaign and took a mortgage for an additional $225,000. A $10,000 Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) grant completed the project, including an elevator, remodeled restrooms, and new front entrance as well as a new roof, bigger parking lot, air conditioning, paint, and carpeting.

Now it's possible for everyone to access all parts of the building, says Atkinson. "It has also made it easier to transport equipment around the building and our rentals have gone up. We can now indicate our accessibility in our newspaper ads and I can invite friends in wheelchairs. I couldn't do that before." Membership increased by about forty in the past year.

The First Unitarian Universalist (UU) Society of Burlington, VT (514), began a signing program for deaf people at the suggestion of a University of Vermont student services employee who said that the only other congregations to provide that service were conservative and that many students were looking for a liberal alternative.

The church raised more than $10,000 including grants from the Fund for Unitarian Universalism and the Whitney M. Young Jr. Urban Ministry Fund. Most will go to pay signers for Sunday services and other church events. A course in sign language and deaf culture will also be provided to members.

"We won't really know how many deaf people we'll get," says Rev. Roddy O'Neil Cleary, affiliate minister. "We obviously wouldn't have any if we didn't do this. It's a leap of faith."

Jonathan Sands, Chair of the Burlington Society Council, said the signing program had benefits even before it began. "I believe that already the congregation's eyes have begun to open to the ways in which we can be more inclusive and accessible, and that rather than being a chore, it will be rewarding.

"If we are true to our faith we will all do this work," says Helen Bishop, chair of the UUA Accessibilities Committee. She advises: "When you set up a room, leave spaces for wheelchairs. Make sure a speaker has access to the pulpit and to a microphone.

"And if you can't fix up your old building for physical accessibility, then do something else. Establish a ministry to people with limited hearing or vision, for example. Be the place in town for teens with cerebral palsy, or where it's okay to have a learning disability." She adds, "We all need to ask questions in every board and committee meeting, 'How does this decision affect people with disabilities?' When that goes on for a year or two people start to see it differently."

Two districts, Central Midwest and Pacific Southwest, have accessibility committees. Southwest District is forming one and Thomas Jefferson District has begun discussions.

First Unitarian Church of Oakland, CA (308), made major accessibility improvements to its building following an earthquake. Lisa Rosene, the church's A ccessibility Coordinator, reminds that accessibility is more than just getting into the building. The church has placed signs in bathrooms asking people to refrain from using heavy scents because some people have allergies to them. The first three rows in the sanctuary have been designated a scent-free zone. Unscented cleaning products are also used throughout the church. In addition, church interior signs are in Braille.

Accessibility is a continuing process, the First Unitarian Church of Baltimore (217) has discovered. For years, it's had an interior wheelchair lift for years and a portable ramp to aid entrance into its 184-year-old building. But the lift is too small for modern wheelchairs. The congregation is making plans to replace it as well as add a permanent exterior ramp designed to match the historic building. Old hearing devices have been replaced with digital ones. The congregation's accessibility committee has also performed an accessibilities audit that itemizes improvements that could be made.

"We think of ourselves as a welcoming church and accessibility is a big part of that," says Guy Arceneaux, Board President. Baltimore church administrator Linda Shaw adds, "It's more than just having elevators and signs in Braille and interpreters on Sunday morning. All you have to do is spend a day in a wheelchair to get a feel whether your building is accessible. It's amazing what you find out. Just going over a tiny little step can be a major ordeal. Or it's the way you feel when you have to have someone help you. These are issues many of us run into when we get older. It's an opportunity for the entire congregation to live out its commitment to respecting every person. None of us knows when we might have a disability."

Resources

Information about accessibility issues in churches can be found at the website for the National Organization for Disabilities. The National Council of Churches has an Accessible Congregations Campaign in which the UUA is a partner.

The UUA website also has accessibility information, including how to do an accessibility audit of your facilities.

For information about accessibility issues, contact the Office of Accessibility Concerns.

See UU World, July/August 1996, Congregational Life and Leadership page, for ways to make your congregation more accessible. Also see UU World, Sept./Oct. 1997, for an interview with Nancy Mairs.

Contact the Chair of the UUA Accessibilities Committee.

Weaving the Fabric of Diversity, an adult religious education program that includes discussions of accessibility, is available from the UUA Bookstore #1856 $25 or (800) 215-9076.

For more information contact interconnections@uua.org.

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