“Does this mean we flunked our accessibility consultation?” someone asked as we waited for the firefighters to arrive. From across the room came the words of truth, “‘Epic failure’ doesn’t even come close to describing this situation.”
In my imagination, the weekend was going to be a beautiful, wonder-filled, inspiring moment in the life of the congregation that would launch us into an intentional period of reflection and conversation about differing abilities, disabilities, and disability rights. As I imagined it, Rev. Diana would help us creatively think through how to best work with our historic building (and its unique quirks) and guide us further along in our process of becoming a church where ALL people are included in the full life of our congregation. I imagined that in the weeks that would follow, we’d be happily having the conversations and working towards living into our commitment to extravagant welcome, both in our congregational culture and our physical structures.
It had started off well. On Saturday, we excitedly welcomed the Rev. Diana Coberly to Decorah, and she carefully went room by room, sharing wisdom in story and by example. She celebrated with us what had already been accomplished: a wheelchair accessible lift, an automatic door opener, sound amplifying devices in the sanctuary, large print bulletins, coat racks easily reachable by someone sitting in a wheel chair, etc. She challenged us to be more intentional in our signage and to create better accessible parking. She gave great practical advice and gave us guidance on how to make our rooms and bathrooms functionally accessible, not just ADA compliant. And, on Sunday morning, Rev. Diana preached worship and after lunch led a short training workshop on disability rights and advocacy and the role of the church. It had all gone well and prompted some of the hoped for conversations. There was still a lot of work to be done and more conversation to be had, but it was a solid foundation for us to build upon.
After the workshop, Diana and I went to retrieve her belongings from my office in the main sanctuary building. Built in 1896, with an entrance sitting atop 15 steep stairs, the sanctuary building is dependent upon a wheelchair lift from another building to make it accessible for all people. It was on that final ride up, that we heard the now infamous sound of mechanical failure and failure of extravagant welcome. Suffice it to say that though Rev. Diana did make it all the way up the lift, it was clear that she would not be able to ride it back down to the ground floor exit. The irony did not escape us. Our accessibility consultant was trapped in our building. Two minutes after the phone call was placed, firefighters, the EMTs, and the police were on scene, happy to help. As the firefighters were carrying her and then her chair out of the building, Diana laughed and pointed out that a team of firefighters on Sunday morning might make for a fun group of ushers and a possible alternative to building a ramp.
Had the lift not failed, we might still be having the comfortable-ish conversations we were a year ago. But instead, we had to take a good, hard look at our priorities and start putting time, energy, and money into widening our welcome. It hasn’t been easy, but it has made a significant difference in the life of our church.
The truth is, that all churches need to be having conversations around physical and cultural accessibility. Churches aren’t required by law to conform to accessibility laws (though every other public place is), but as people who ground our being in a God whose love is deep and wide, we ought not use that as our rubric anyway. When was the last time your church had a serious conversation about accessibility? Not just the physical accessibility of your building but the congregation’s culture also? If it’s been a while, here are a few resources to get you started:
- Learn more about the UCC’s Disabilities Ministries (http://uccdm.org)
- Learn more about Accessible to All (A2A) (http://uccdm.org/programs/a2a/)
- Explore the Accessibility Audit from the UMC (http://www.gcfa.org/sites/default/files/u3/Accessibility%20Audit%20Rev%20Nov%202013.pdf)
- Email Iowa’s very own, the Rev. Diana Coberly (email@example.com) who is willing and happy to help congregations cultivate these conversations
Adjunct Staff Member who works with PATHWAYS at Iowa Conference and Senior Pastor at Decorah Congregational UCC