Disabled Worshippers Struggle with Accessibility Issues at Church

January 16, 2010

Among the most humbling moments being confined to an electric wheelchair came when Shawana Bulloch realized it could prevent her from attending services at her Savannah church.

“The one place you should be able to go is in the church without assistance, you should be able to walk in — or roll in,” said Bulloch, who recently convinced her Full Gospel congregation to get a portable ramp.

The disabled faithful say such experiences remain common in houses of worship, stoked by ignorance of their needs and doctrines that paint disability as proof of sin.

Years after U.S. federal law required accommodations for the disabled, separation of church and state means houses of worship remain largely beyond the law’s reach. State laws and denominational measures meant to take up the slack are tricky to enforce and face resistance from churches who call them both costly and impractical.

The issue is gaining new attention as the disabled community expands, fed by aging baby boomers and a growing number of people with intellectual disabilities who are demanding a more prominent place in the pews.

A Centers for Disease Control report released in April found that an estimated one in five U.S. adults — 47.5 million people — reported a disability. The National Organization on Disability estimates less than half of disabled Americans attend services at least once a month compared to 57 per cent without disabilities.

“While laws have their own power for forcing the public to not discriminate, faith communities really answer to a higher authority,” said Thomas Boehm, whose Nashville, Tenn.-based non-profit Faith for All, counsels churches on improving access. “Why have they been so slow to respond, that’s the question.”

While the Americans with Disabilities Act sets accessibility requirements in government and public buildings, churches are mostly shielded by separation of church and state rights. Exceptions include secular businesses within a church building.

States have taken their own steps to ensure equal religious accommodations for the disabled. In Kansas, for example, officials have effectively applied the state’s own ADA-like law to houses of worship, according to state ADA co-ordinator Anthony Fadale.

“It’s not a matter of necessarily enforcing it — it’s that people want to know what the law is,” said Fadale, who credits an eager religious community interested in creating churches with accessible bathrooms, benches and common areas.

Meanwhile, Georgia has struggled to enforce measures on quasi-public buildings like churches. A 1995 opinion by the state attorney general deemed churches fell under the mandate.

Yet more than a decade later, do Georgia churches comply?

“I don’t think we can say that with certainty,” state ADA co-ordinator Mike Galifianakis said.

The law is enforced by local officials who can define a “reasonable accommodation.” That means a chair lift for an altar, for example, may be considered reasonable in one locality and excessive in another, he explained.

Yet activists say those areas are exactly where the disabled increasingly hope to access.

They want special touches like pew cutouts that let wheelchair users sit alongside other worshippers, or listening devices that aid in confession — accommodations that can be pricey, according to Rev. Barbara Ramnaraine, co-ordinator of the Episcopal Disability Network, the denomination’s disabled ministry.

Denominations like hers have passed efforts encouraging inclusion for years, but internal rules mean leaders can’t force a congregation’s hand.

Article ID# 2264473

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