Accessibility as Empowerment

Volume 48, Issue 1 :: Mark I. Pinsky and Ginny Thornburgh

“For my house shall be a house of prayer for all people.”

Isaiah 56:7

In 2000, when the Reform Jewish synagogue Bet Shalom in Minnetonka, Minnesota, began considering plans for a new building, they made a far-sighted decision. Jackie Hirsh – a longtime congregation member with multiple sclerosis who used a wheelchair – was appointed to serve on the congregation’s architectural advisory committee. “Jackie was invited to be on the committee because our community did not want to do something for her,” recalled Rabbi Norman Cohen.  “We wanted to do something with her, and get the inside view from her experience, expertise, and sensitivity to the need to be inclusive.” This decision was a success, and a model for inclusion, with “a series of congregational meetings inviting everyone to participate and give input, based on what they would like to see in our new space.”

Sanctuary of Bet Shalom synagogue, designed by Bentz/Thompson/Rietow with a building committee that included those with disabilities.

Sanctuary of Bet Shalom synagogue, designed by Bentz/Thompson/Rietow with a building committee that included those with disabilities.

The new building, designed by Bentz/Thompson/Rietow in Minneapolis, included a gently rising floor to the pulpit so that everyone in the congregation – regardless of their physical ability – would approach that holy place the same way. And although Hirsh died about a year after the new sanctuary opened, she enjoyed worshipping there, and is remembered by the congregation with affection and gratitude (her memorial service took place in the space that she helped to make possible).

Articulating the need for accessibility and inclusion is one thing. Implementing it is quite another, and anticipating it yet another order of magnitude. Relationship experts – in the home and in the workplace – like to point to the critical benefits of an early buy-in. “Aboard for the takeoff, aboard for the landing,” they say. That is, projects achieve the best results by involving, in a meaningful way, all affected parties at the outset of the process. That’s especially true when faith communities build, renovate or retrofit their sanctuaries, social halls and rest rooms to make them fully accessible, as is recommended by the book Accessible Faith: A Technical Guide for Accessibility in Houses of Worship, published by The Retirement Research Foundation. By including people with disabilities on building, grounds, and facilities committees, congregations are more likely to prepare their faith communities for future members who might come, as well as retaining those who are already members. 

Admittedly, including someone with a disability in meetings of the building committee may not be as easy as it first sounds. If done thoughtfully and effectively, however, this inclusion can be an educational benefit to the entire committee. Once the decision has been made, some additional thought must be given to the very functioning of that committee: If the person added uses a wheelchair, scooter, walker, or cane, the meetings will need to take place in an accessible location. This may eliminate the religious leader’s study. If the person added is hard-of-hearing, the committee may need to budget funds for hearing enhancement during its meetings. Or if one of the added members of the building committee has chronic pain, meetings may need to be held during the day and never in the evening when the pain is most severe.

Notwithstanding, more and more congregations are making concerted efforts to make their facilities accessible to all, although in most cases this is not required by the Americans with Disabilities Act. In the past few decades the need for physical accommodations in houses of worship has been raised by people with disabilities, together with their families, friends, and caregivers. In some cases, the latter group has also provided some or all of the financial support for these modifications. However, until recently, people with disabilities have not been widely included in the design process as members who work directly with architects and builders. The critical issue here is meaningful inclusion – and empowerment. Who knows better what it takes to make houses of worship accessible and welcoming?

Architects will also benefit from working directly with people with disabilities.  “In serving the client, it’s important for the architect to work alongside people with different abilities in order to directly accommodate their needs,” says Hiba Bhatty, a third-year graduate student in the Yale School of Architecture. “Had I not grown up having a brother who uses a wheel chair, I wouldn’t have noticed how inaccessible public buildings can be…. Our mosque in Chicago has recently been renovated, and is now more accessible,” in part because her family and others with disabilities advocated for access. “The field of architecture isn’t usually associated with civil rights or empowerment. Architects need to be aware of the diversity of users and always design with accessibility in mind.”

Encouraging people with disabilities to participate in facilities planning at the beginning, and in a formal way, is evolving. However, some tentative steps have been taken by some extraordinary people. In the rural community of Borculo, Michigan, not far from Grand Rapids, the Christian Reformed Church occupies a 125-year-old building built in a style familiar to the area. The sanctuary is a few steps above ground level, accessible by a concrete ramp and a motorized lift. But until a few years ago, the basement – where the bathrooms, social hall, library and classrooms are – could only be reached by steps and an awkward chair lift. So, with numerous seniors in the 300-member congregation, the church began to study how to best make the basement accessible.

Generous hallways outside the synagogue’s sanctuary not only ensure easy passage for those using wheelchairs, but also convey a sense of welcome.

Generous hallways outside the synagogue’s sanctuary not only ensure easy passage for those using wheelchairs, but also convey a sense of welcome.

One of the key members of the committee was Pat Huisingh, who had grown up in the church. Huisingh, who has Muscular Dystrophy, began using a manual wheel chair in college and, as her condition has changed, has moved to a power chair. Until a few years ago, Huisingh was an insurance agent and active in her church, singing in the choir, teaching Sunday school, and working with young people. Now she serves as a regional representative on disability issues for her denomination. She made the case to the building committee, and then to the congregation, that they needed a full-sized elevator, no small expense for a church of that size. In part, Huisingh believes, “because I’ve grown up in the church, and they’ve seen the extent of my disability,” they voted to approve the elevator which also accommodates other power chair users including a college student and an elementary school girl. All of this, Huisingh believes, sends an important message to people from the areas who visit Borculo Christian Reformed Church for weddings, funerals, and vacation Bible school: “We don’t exclude.” As a result, such visitors may consider becoming members.

Sometimes it takes repeated efforts – and perseverance – to succeed. Mary Lou Luvisa grew up hard of hearing in Phoenix, Arizona. She attended her Episcopal church from childhood, and it is where she found a source of particular support. She attended regularly.  With hymns posted by number near the front of the sanctuary, Luvisa knew what page to turn to to sing, and she memorized the liturgy.  But, following the sermons in the cavernous parish was an acoustical nightmare. In her adult years she attended Saint Barnabas in Scottsdale, where she then lived.  Again hearing the sermons was difficult even with the two hearing aids she now wore.  So she went to the rector of Saint Barnabas and raised the issue.  She got a respectful hearing, but she was unable to mobilize other people or convince the clergy of the problems in the sanctuary and in the parish hall.  Later a change in rectors brought forth one that was vitally interested in the problems as others in the congregation also began to voice the same complaints. 

In 2008, when the congregation made plans to renovate the parish social hall, she was appointed to the building and grounds committee. This time Luvisa, who had been frustrated by her inability to hold a conversation in the room, made certain that included in the improvements were special, sound-absorbing ceiling and wall panels, which made an enormous difference. There remained the problem of worship in the sanctuary. So she researched various sound enhancement systems, and got a member of the congregation who was an engineer to prepare a report on what it would take to address the problem. Luvisa approached the new rector with her research. In 2010, when the congregation was planning to refurbish the sanctuary, she was called on to address the committee. Thus, in addition to redoing the altar area and buying new carpet, pews, and cushions, the building committee agreed to install a hearing loop–an unobtrusive sound system that Luvisa recommended and she and others use to this day.

The architectural design of a church, synagogue, temple, or mosque needs to reflect the heart, mind, and soul of all people who gather in worship, prayer, and study. The best way to ensure that people with physical, sensory, and cognitive disability feel welcomed and valued once the project is complete is to include their voices at the start of the design process. As is often said by disability advocates: “Nothing about us without us.”

Longtime religion writer Mark I. Pinsky is author of Amazing Gifts: Stories of Faith, Disability and Inclusion (Alban, 2012), among other books. Ginny Thornburgh has been an advocate for people with disabilities for over 40 years. She is co-author of That All May Worship: An Interfaith Welcome to People with Disabilities.

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