Parishes are eying access to disabled - Catholic Courier

Parishes are eying access to disabled

Joe Paris is more involved in his parish now that it’s more accessible for people with disabilities.

Paris has been in a wheelchair since 1995 due to a blood clot from a medical procedure. In 2004, Our Mother of Sorrows Parish in Greece installed a ramp to its ambo, which has allowed Paris to become a lector.

He also was able to join the men’s club after the parish installed an elevator-like lift that allows him to get down to the basement for meetings. The lift was installed in 2006 through a donation from parishioner Christine Klos, in memory of her husband, David.

Father Alexander Bradshaw, pastor of Our Mother of Sorrows, said the upgrades have made his parish more welcoming.

“We want to be hospitable and available to everyone regardless of problems of access so we can worship together — all of us — as a community,” Father Bradshaw said.

This month, as disability advocates mark the 17th anniversary of the Americans With Disabilities Act, a local advocate said some resources are available to parishes that are looking to expand their access.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 51.2 million people, or 18 percent of the population, have some level of disability. Of those with disabilities, 32.5 million, or 12 percent of the population, have a severe disability. Of people 80 and older, 72 percent have a disability, the Census Bureau said.

Disability advocate Chris Hilderbrant of the Center for Disability Rights said there are a range of misconceptions about the 1990 act, including that buildings of a certain age can be grandfathered in. He said although most churches are exempt from portions of the act that require physical access for the disabled, a church that is used for such public functions as elections may be required to follow the law, regardless of the age of the structure. Also, private schools are not exempt from physical-access requirements, said Hilderbrant, the director of advocacy for the Center for Disability Rights in Rochester.

Several church documents recommend promoting access for the disabled. The Diocese of Rochester’s Building Commission guidelines, based in part on a 1978 pastoral statement by the U.S. bishops, require access improvements, if needed, as part of planned building renovations.

The National Catholic Partnership on Disability promotes a universal design to allow all parts of a church to be physically accessible. The partnership suggests parishes might want to consider purchasing a teletypewriter and large-print materials, getting volunteers to provide transportation access, moving gatherings to accessible sites and clustering among worship sites to allow a parishioner with special needs to find access at one of the worship sites. Details are at

“There can be no separate Church for persons with disabilities,” the U.S. bishops said in their 1998 statement “Welcome and Justice for Persons with Disabilities.”

Hilderbrant said an accessible event that is advertised as such can spur more people to attend. He suggested involving people with disabilities in parish leadership to promote positive attitudes about the disabled.

“If someone gets over those (negative) attitudes, they can see people with disabilities as people,” Hilderbrant said.

He advised churches to make sure staircases are well-lit, doors can open automatically, carpeting is not plush, ramps conform to universal design guidelines and that there is space for wheelchairs throughout a sanctuary.

He also suggested partnering with an area senior-citizen center to coordinate accessible transportation. Fliers should be printed in an easy-to-read font, and Web sites should have accessible features or an all-text version. Outside a building, he said sidewalks should be level and handicapped parking spots should have an 8-foot access aisle.

Hilderbrant pointed out that creativity can be used to find money for parish improvements. A municipality’s Community Development Block Grant funding may be available for access improvements, especially if a parish facility is used for a public purpose such as voting, he noted. Communities also may have historic-preservation funds or grant money available such as facade-improvement funds, he said.

Free and low-cost consulting help also is available. Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations is home to a center that promotes training and technical assistance on the Americans with Disabilities Act. It also consults with educational entities to improve technology access. For details, call 800/949-4232. Tips for online access are available at

The Regional Center for Independent Living has an accessibility team that will conduct a free analysis upon request, which includes suggestions on access upgrades and their costs. For details, call 585/442-6470 and ask for Fred Dievendorf.

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