Access Sunday, 2016

This morning, in partnership with the Black Hills Association and the South Dakota Conference of the United Church of Christ our congregation will commission Ben Anderson as minister of disability education and advocacy. It is a formal acknowledgement of a process that has been going on in our congregation for many years and Ben is joining a long line of people who have worked for accessibility and elimination of barriers.

The work of making our church accessible to all didn’t start in this generation. I’ve heard the stories of church pioneers who insisted on a church built on a single level back in the 1950’s before anyone had imagined the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). I can name a long list of leaders who contributed to making our church building what it is today. The truth, however, is that there is still a lot of work that needs to be done. It is a process that will last long beyond the span of our lives.

A few examples from the life of our church serve as illustrations of why this work demands long-term commitment:

Back in the 1950’s one of the big advocates for accessibility in our building was a man named Pete Melgren. He had a daughter who had suffered from polio and it was important to him that the church be a place where a person who uses a wheelchair for mobility could navigate. His faithfulness in meeting after meeting with the architect resulted in the design of the building we now have. He was proud of the building and his accomplishments. Pete was a plumbing contractor who also provided crews to do some of the actual work of building. The building was dedicated in 1959 - before standards had been established for accessibility for those with wheelchairs. One of the biggest remodeling projects in the building was the construction of new bathrooms because the original bathrooms didn’t have the physical space to provide accessibility. The plumbing contractor couldn’t envision the bathrooms that would be needed.

Bill Staton was another leader and advocate for accessibility. Upon his death, his family and friends provided memorial funds that allowed for the installation of the first power-operated door at the main entrance to the church. His widow and children routinely commented to me how pleased Bill would have been with that power door, operated with a large round button, to provide access to the church. It is a wonderful device, but it doesn’t provide complete access to the building. Once inside that front door, there is a second row of doors that remain without a power operator. We deal with that challenge by leaving those doors wide open most of the time, but dream of the day when they too can be opened by someone who lacks the physical strength to push and/or pull the large glass doors.

Speaking of doors, our new ADA compliant bathrooms have doors that are a physical barrier to some people. We did so much right in designing the bathrooms, but failed to recognize that opening the door can be a real challenge to a person using a wheelchair. Furthermore, we have no private bathroom for those who need assistance. Construction on our family access bathroom is slated for January of 2017, but in the meantime, there are real challenges for those who need assistance.

Also on the list of capital projects to be completed in the next three years is a vertical access lift to allow those living with disabilities to access our choir loft. As our present choir illustrates, using canes or a walker to get around is no barrier to singing in the choir. The steps up to the choir loft, however, are a different matter. The resilience and strength of our choir members is routinely tested, but we know that access can be improved.

And when we finish the current list of projects, we still will have barriers in our building. As Nels Dyrdahl taught us, although we have pew cutouts to allow those with wheel chairs to sit with their families in worship, access to those cutouts requires going in the center doors and up the middle aisle then around the front of the pews and back down the outside aisles because the doors providing access to the outside aisles are a fraction of an inch too narrow for some brands of power wheelchairs.

It is obvious to any observer that a person using a wheelchair cannot access the chancel, pulpit and communion table. Although we can envision a ramp to provide that access, it isn’t on a current list of projects.

Our west entrance, which provides access to our preschool has no power openers on the outside doors and the space between the inner and outer door is too small to allow the swing of the door and a wheelchair. The solution will be an opener that can open two doors at once.

Even if we were to eliminate all of the physical barriers, our work would not be done. Less obvious, but just as real, are the psychological barriers that make our church an intimidating environment for those suffering from certain psychological illnesses. Our awareness of and attention to the ways we use language, the listening skills we employ, and our understanding of mental illness require constant vigilance and careful attention.

Becoming a church that is accessible to all is a long process of education and awareness. Work will remain when this generation passes the reins of leadership to the next. A friend’s use of language has guided me in this process. He referred to those of us who do not have visible disabilities as “temporarily-abled.” The term reminds us that we all will suffer forms of disability in the span of our lives. This is not now, nor has it ever been about “us and them.” It has always been about who we are and our efforts to realize that disability education and advocacy benefits everyone.

Copyright (c) 2016 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!