congregational life

 Contents: UU World Back Issue

Accessibilities mindset widens doors, opens hearts

by Donald E. Skinner

When Charles "Eric" Ericson installed a $19 grab bar in a bathroom at First Parish Unitarian Universalist in Bridgewater, Massachusetts, he was simply trying to make things easier for himself after his hip surgery.

"I was in a wheelchair for three months, and I've also got a little arthritis, so it was hard for me to get up and down," he says. The new grab bar led to a discussion about accessibility issues in the congregation's 150-year-old building, which has three levels. Only one was accessible to people in wheelchairs.

Ericson soon found himself in charge of the congregation's new accessibility committee. "You know how it is," he says. "If you bring something up you need to be prepared to take charge of it." About that same time a young man who had cerebral palsy showed up at church—in a wheelchair. He could get into the sanctuary, but not the other parts of the building.

"We decided we needed an elevator," says Ericson. "Luckily we had a good place to put one." The congregation raised $19,000, including $5,000 in grants, and the work was completed last September. "The most fun was raising the money," says Ericson. A congregational band was put together, and it played at fundraising events. $1,300 came in from deposits on bottles and soda cans. "The young man in the wheelchair was totally happy," says Ericson. "He communicates by pointing to words on a board, and he kept pointing to, 'Thank you, thank you!'"

Ericson says the congregation was ready to do this. "They were reaching for their checkbooks as soon as we decided to do it. There was a sense of relief along with pride. They recognized that any one of us could be in a wheelchair at any time. And it makes us feel good to know that whoever comes, we're ready for them."

The High Street Unitarian Universalist Church in Macon, Georgia, bought its first building, a century-old downtown church, in 1988. The building's two previous congregations had moved to the suburbs. "We didn't want to do that," says Dick Creswell, a past president and a former president of the Mid-South District. "We wanted to remain a downtown church. But because our old building wasn't very attractive to families, we felt we had to renovate. We wanted a building that reflected the quality of our ministry."

The congregation has just raised more than $500,000 (the total cost of improvements will be $687,000, including a mortgage), a stunning amount for a 107-member community, to create a new children's religious education space and to make accessibility improvements including an elevator, improved lighting, and a new sound system in the three-level building.

Creswell credits a former member, Jaehn Clare, who has moved to Atlanta and now attends its Northwest Unitarian Universalist Congregation, with inspiring the congregation to be more accessible. "She taught us a lot about disabilities," Creswell says. "Having a real person involved makes it not just politically correct, but something people can put their hearts into. It made accessibility very important to us."

"When I first started attending, the pews were arranged with tight passages," says Clare, who uses a wheelchair because of a spinal cord injury. "People watched me navigate and then in a couple of weeks they had made small shifts with the furniture. After I came to the front for joys and concerns one Sunday and people saw I couldn't get up on the platform with everyone else, they soon built a ramp.

"I think my being there caused many people to take a deeper look at another level of oppression—the physical barriers between people. The world changes one person at a time. Sometimes just being physically present is a start toward making a difference. "And for me, as a newcomer to Unitarian Universalism, it was an interesting way to be introduced to the value system and what seemed to be to be genuine and authentic attempts at growth and social justice. That won me over."

Are there other people in wheelchairs at High Street? "Not yet," says Creswell. "The old saying that we don't need to be accessible because we don't have anyone in a wheelchair, is wrong. You can be sure that some day you will."

When Clare began attending her current congregation, Northwest, the only wheelchair entrance was in the back of the church. "I wanted to use the front door like everyone else, but it had four or five steps. My partner spoke to people and they added a little piece of sidewalk around the steps."

Size doesn't matter in accessibility issues. The 25-member Unitarian Universalist Church of Lima, Ohio, designed and built a wheelchair ramp last fall so members could avoid the front steps. They were inspired by Beth Michel, wife of a frequent service leader, and dedicated the ramp to her.

"Congregations are absolutely doing better at becoming accessible," says Helen Bishop, chair of the UUA's Accessibilities Committee. "I'm hearing that congregations are much more interested in doing this well."

Bishop adds, "I'm also hearing less that, 'We don't need a ramp because we don't have anyone who needs one.' More and more congregations are aware that the most important accessibilities work has to do with our attitudes." Bishop thinks that part of the interest in accessibility stems from the UUA's annual General Assembly, where delegates witness many people with disabilities participating in events, from people in wheelchairs, to those with hearing and vision loss and scent allergies. GA includes a scent-free seating area.

There are brochures and workshops to help congregations. Accessibilities resources are gathered at Soon to be added to those resources is a book on how to involve children with special needs in our congregations. The book, Involve: Welcoming All Children and Youth into Our Faith Communities, will be published by the UUA in late summer. The author is Sally Patton of the Winchester, Massachusetts, Unitarian Society.

The UUA Accessibilities Committee is also preparing a video, to be available at GA in June, about how congregations are making themselves accessible.

One congregation on the video will be the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the Outer Banks in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. The 80-member congregation has a three-year-old building with an elevator, accessible bathrooms, and handicapped parking. Sunday service leaders are asked to use a microphone so that all can hear. For the benefit of those with allergies, aromatic plants, flowers, and scented candles are discouraged. "It's been fantastic for us," says Dick Liston, chair of the building and grounds committee. "We have members who use the elevator all the time. We're ready to grow, to build our religious education program. Being accessible feels like the right thing to do."

 Contents: UU World Back Issue

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