logo of the United Methodist Task Force on Disability Ministries

January 2012
Vol. 2 No. 1

Woman using accessible photocopier while seated in her wheelchair

Using new accessible photocopier  



of the

United Methodist

 Disability Connection


Greetings in Christ! 


The New Year has begun - a time when many individuals and groups make plans for the year to come.  This is a good time to audit your church's buildings and programs to determine what next steps are most appropriate as you continue the journey towards making them open to all people. 


You might start by conducting a survey to find the unmet needs and priorities that members of the congregation identify.  The Congregational Accessibility Network website (see resources) contains one such survey.  You may choose to use one of several church accessibility audits that are listed. 


Another approach would be to start a Disabilities Connections committee (other names are Access Committee or Inclusivity Committee) to gain a base of support before proposing changes.  Committee members usually include persons with disabilities, family members of adults or children with disabilities, and professionals with experience and interest in accessibility and inclusion. 


Keep us posted on your successes, and let us know how we can assist your congregation to welcome and incorporate people of all abilities into the life of your church.


  Lynn Swedberg, Editor

In This Issue
Church Accepts Accessibility Audit "Next Steps" Challenge
Work Closely with Local Church Trustees to See Results
Platform Lifts are a Cost-effective Alternative to Ramps and Elevators

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Church Accepts Accessibility Audit

"Next Steps" Challenge 


Morningside UMC in Salem, OR is a congregation that takes seriously the charge to be welcoming and accessible.  The building is at ground level, though the upper level is accessible only by wheeling or driving up the hill and entering an upper door. Measures taken in the past include shortening two pews in the center of sanctuary seating and installing an induction loop assistive listening system.  The church just obtained an accessible photocopier with a moveable control panel which can be tilted down for use by someone seated in a wheelchair.  The trustees are remodeling an upper floor restroom into a unisex accessible one.  They are also planning to use a bequest to improve building access with an automatic door opener.


The 300 member congregation has a 10-12 member Disabilities Connections Committee that meets regularly to troubleshoot access issues.   They plan and lead the annual Disabilities Awareness Sunday worship service and designed a six-week children's Sunday school unit on disability awareness.  Current committee goals include finding ways to better include children with disabilities in church programming.  They are working to ensure that words projected on the worship screen are easy to read both in terms of font and contrast.  They also plan to provide more awareness training for greeters and ushers.   


The church offers a monthly Parents' Night Out event which is open to and utilized by families with children of all abilities.  The church's welcome statement intentionally states that "Because we are followers of Christ we welcome all, including, but not limited to, persons of every race, nationality, age, gender, social condition, ability, marital status,..."  An example of their recognition of abilities is hiring a talented choir director who is very involved in leadership of many church ministries and happens to have a significant hearing loss. 


This church graciously agreed to an accessibility audit to have outside eyes point out potential next steps to take.  The chancel, which rises 19" above the sanctuary floor, is not accessible.  Members have tried unsuccessfully to envision where a 19' ramp could be built.  However, there is side door access from a storage area which is large enough for installation of a platform lift.  This access route would require elimination of a triangular platform at the back of the chancel, but no substantial remodeling.  At the opposite side of the chancel the choir seating platform could be modified to allow for wheelchair seating.  The podium is too high for a child or a reader using a wheelchair, but could be supplemented by a wooden music stand. 


The church has a lower coat rack that can be reached by children and people using wheelchairs, but it is used as a storage rack.  Clearing this rack and switching the order of the racks would be a sign of welcome.  Signage directing people to the sanctuary, accessible restroom, and other building areas would eliminate unnecessary steps for visitors Access ramp in need of railing repairswith limited mobility or endurance.  The upper level entrance bridge railing needs repair so that a foot or wheel does slip off the edge.


Another focus should be the church website.  The site does not state that the facilities are accessible, and the welcome statement comes after a very long string of church photos.  The photos do not have alternate labeling so someone using a screen reader would have no access to the content, and would have trouble negotiating the site.  Most of the links for more information are to pdf files, with no alternative format available for persons using screen readers.  In addition to using information from the Web accessibility article in the November VOICE newsletter, the church should seek specific training for the webmaster.


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   Work Closely with Local Church Trustees to See Results

Trustees can be effective partners in improving church accessibility, so make sure that someone with an interest in accessibility is on your board of trustees.

Did you know that: "every board of trustees... shall conduct or cause to be conducted an annual accessibility audit of their buildings, grounds, and facilities to discover and identify what physical, architectural, and communication barriers exist that impede the full participation of persons with disabilities and shall make plans and determine priorities of the elimination of all such barriers."? (See 2532, 2008 Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church.)  If your church has an Access or Disability Awareness committee, members can train the trustees in how to complete the audit, or offer to do the project jointly. 

Further, "If any local church desires to build a new church, a new educational building, or a new parsonage, purchase a church, educational building, or parsonage or remodel an existing church, an existing educational building or an existing parsonage, where the cost of the remodeling will exceed 25% of the value of the existing structure or require mortgage financing, then the local church shall first ... analyze the needs of the church and community ...and develop an accessibility plan including chancel areas." ( 2543)  The trustees and building committee in your church may not be aware of these guidelines, so get involved at the outset of any building project.

The Trustees at Morningside UMC see their job as making building improvements that will benefit everyone.  When someone points out a problem they address the need as soon as possible. For instance, they replaced difficult to manipulate restroom door knobs with lever handles and removed automatic door closers that do not meet ADA guidelines.  One member who uses a wheelchair related that the pew cuts were completed during the week after her first visit to the church and ready the following Sunday. The trustees are considering a suggestion box as another way to find out what is needed.  Accessibility improvements are not voted on because they are not considered optional, but rather prioritized and accomplished as soon as plans and funding can be arranged.  Their Dream Project List is developed in communication with the Disabilities Connections committee, and the strong working relationship between the committees is a model other churches may want to emulate.


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      Platform Lifts are a Cost-effective Alternative             to Ramps and Elevators

Many churches trying to bridge differences in elevation, e.g. from the sanctuary floor to the chancel, limit their exploration to elevators and ramps.  A platform lift may be a viable and affordable option, especially when there is limited space and the rise is short.  There are two primary types of platform lifts. 

A vertical platform lift moves straight up for a maximum of 14 feet and three exits. The exits can be in a different direction at each stop.  The lift can be enclosed but that is notPortable platform lift required for a rise up to 60".  Some are attached to the outside of a building and look like small elevators, while many are indoors.  Most are permanently installed, but portable lifts that are rolled into place (e.g. when stage or sound booth access is needed) can be useful if there are several places where a lift might be needed.

An incline platform lift travels up and down a flight of stairs, typically moving along on a special railing mounted on the wall.  Both indoor and outdoor versions are available.  Some styles fold against the wall when not in use so the stairs are useable; others remain in Folded stairway incline liftplace, ready for immediate use.

Lifts differ from elevators in their size: most hold only one person in a wheelchair and one attendant.  This means that the wheelchair user may have to back into or out of the lift. Lifts are operated manually, usually by pressing a button while the unit moves.  The size allows use in smaller spaces than an elevator would require.  Platform lifts are for limited use situations, while elevators are designed for frequent use by many people.  Lifts are considerably Incline platform lift in usecheaper.  A 19" platform lift to the chancel at Morningside in Salem should not cost more than $15,000, including installation.  Another decision needed is whether the lift will be locked when not in use.  If kept locked with no key immediately available, then the lift does not provide actual access. 

Berry Memorial UMC in Chicago installed an incline platform lift in 2007, partly paid by grant funding from the Retirement Research Foundation (see Resources for more information). The total cost was approximately $43,000 for a lift that provides access up to the sanctuary level and down to the ground floor level.  They chose a style with a fold-down seat so that people not using wheelchairs can benefit as well.  The church discovered that obtaining a permit can be a lengthy process; in their case they were required to add an additional fire exit before the city would issue a permit.  They advise pursuing the permitting process before submitting a grant application.

The Dalles First UMC, a small town congregation in Oregon, installed a vertical lift in 2009.  The goal was for parishioners to access the fellowship hall, up half a flight from the main sanctuary level.  The lift also descends to the basement church school level where the restrooms are located.  The cost for the enclosed lift was approximately $45,000.  They have been pleased with the lift, but suggest ensuring that the battery is checked during routine maintenance visits.  Their lift was out of service due to a dead battery that hadn't been maintained.  They also found that annual inspections can be expensive and need to be budgeted for.  The church is delighted that community groups are eager to use the building now that it is accessible.


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Congregational Accessibility Network is an interfaith website that leads congregations through the Congregational Accessibility Network logoprocess of becoming increasingly more accessible and inclusive.  Tools include checklists, a structured approach to making changes in local churches, and links to denominational and technical resources.  Video clips illustrate some accessibility features.  The accessibility audit has photos to clarify most standards.  Congregations can enter their results into a central database and earn a certificate and logo for access in the areas of Mobility, Hearing, Sign Language, Vision, and Support to use on their website and in other promotional material.  Rev. Paul Leichty, formerly of the Anabaptist Disability Network, is the site administrator.

The General Board of Global Ministries (GBGM) Disability Concerns website includes a four page Accessibility Mini-audit for churches and a 74 page Accessibility Audit for Churches.  Both can be downloaded as pdf files.

Read more of the guidelines from the 2008 Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church that pertain to working with local church trustees and building committees.

Different audits explain and illustrate options and issues differently, so it can be helpful to review several when your church is working to improve access.  The Presbyterians (PCUSA) offer the Congregational Audit of Disability Accessibility & Inclusion

Another thorough guide to the process of retrofitting for accessibility is Accessible Faith: A Technical Guide for Accessibility in Houses of Worship, published by the Retirement Research Foundation and available for download as a 58 page pdf document.  Richly illustrated with photos and drawings, the guide also addresses considerations for historical buildings.

The Retirement Research Foundation also offers grants to churches in 6 metropolitan Chicago area counties that are modifying their buildings to be more accessible.  Check their web site for specifics.

The 2004 ADA/ABA Accessibility Standards developed by the Access Board are searchable by chapter and topic.  Together with state building codes these standards provide the building blocks for accessible design.

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Please keep us informed of upcoming disability-related workshops and events, and let us know what topics would be helpful for you to read about this year.  Send your ideas and information to our e-mail address.  Remember to forward the newsletter to someone not currently subscribing.  We are up to 336 subscribers but would like to have many more!


Task Force members and Resource persons can assist you with audits, workshops, and committee development.  Lynn will be in San Antonio in March, central Florida in April, Chicago in July, Denver in August, and New York in October and will be available for "Next Steps" audits and other consultation. 


Thanks for your support in 2011 - we look forward to partnering with you in 2012.



United Methodist Task Force on Disability Ministries