How To Guides

For my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples (Is 56:7): Architectural Accessibility

September 04, 2007


Photos (except the image of Sacre Coeur in Paris) are used with permission of the National Catholic Partnership on Disability.

Design is powerful and can profoundly influence our daily lives.(1)  Sacre Coeur, ParisFrom ancient times, its potential to convey the divine and transcendent was not lost on those who built the great temples, cathedrals and churches.  In raising their hearts and minds to the One who is the source of all beauty and truth, worshipers could find God in the architectural details(2) and draw closer to the sacred realities they sought to disclose. Unfortunately, for most of Christian history, these efforts to transform the underlying principles of our faith into brick and mortar, stone and glass,(3) went unseen by persons with disabilities. The age-old tendency to isolate, exclude and marginalize those with disabilities touched even the members of the Christian community and resulted in the construction of inaccessible churches. Consequently, for centuries, Catholics with disabilities were left out of the liturgical celebrations of our faith and denied their God given rights to live out their baptismal call.

Long ago, persons with disabilities and other advocates for architectural accessibility, recognized design as a critical condition for achieving access to the world of opportunity and inclusion.(4)  Larry is Eucharistic MinisterOver the last forty years, enormous advances in access to all aspects of civil society have been made thanks, in large part, to the passage of federal laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990.  The legal mandates and specifications for accessibility found in these laws, together with the threat of prosecution for non-compliance, have greatly influenced the success of these efforts to eliminate discriminatory practices.  Religious organizations are exempt from these architectural regulations and their compliance mandates.  Consequently, a number of churches have planned their new construction and alteration projects without awareness or consideration -- and at times, without even the desire -- for accessibility.

The effort to make our churches welcoming and accessible is not about the ADA; it is about the Gospel.  Renee at accessible amboThough the Church has a long history of charitable giving and support to persons with disabilities, the sheer number of architecturally inaccessible parish and diocesan buildings clearly illustrates that too many Church members have not considered the full participation of persons with disabilities a matter of justice.  However, “the time is always ripe for doing right.” (5)  The revolution in self-perception experienced by the disability community coincided with the civil rights movements of the last century; these factors along with a rediscovery of the radical inclusivity of the life and ministry of Jesus, helped moved many Christians to reexamine their attitudes toward persons with disabilities. As a result, the work to eradicate the barriers that prevented their full and active participation in the life of the church has become a priority for many, but the church still lags far behind civil society in ensuring accessibility for all its members.

Father Essen presides at an accessible altarIn 1978, the U.S. Bishops issued their Pastoral Statement on Persons with Disabilities, which called for the full and active participation of persons with disabilities in all aspects of the life of the church.(6)  The U.S. Bishops acknowledged that the parish is the door to participation in the church(7) and failure to make the community’s places of worship accessible to all will exact a costly human and ecclesial toll.(8)  They insist it is essential that all forms of the liturgy be completely accessible to persons with disabilities(9), since these forms are the essence of the spiritual tie that binds the Christian community together.(10)

Today, more and more bishops, priests and lay leader are recognizing accessibility as a priority and taking steps to help ensure it is a reality in all parts of their dioceses. Many others still need to come to this realization. All would benefit from additional resources that could assist them with ideas, strategies and information on becoming an accessible and welcoming church. The following list of agencies, documents and guidelines is offered as a starting point for this important work:

1. Many dioceses have professionally trained and/or educated staff ministering with disability populations and working for accessibility. These directors and coordinators of disability ministry can offer technical assistance and funding ideas to anyone interested in removing the barriers that keep persons with disabilities from full participation in the church. Consult the List of Diocesan Disability Ministries to see whether your diocese has one of these valuable resource persons.

2. Built of Living Stones: Art, Architecture Worship is an excellent resource for any parish or diocese with design and construction plans for new or existing church buildings. Issued by the USCCB, this important publication addresses accessibility concerns throughout the document and also includes a specific section on the topic (beginning at para. 206).

3. Though exempt from federal design requirements, churches are still free to consult the ADA Standards for Accessible Design or the “New” or 2004 ADAAG (ADA Accessibility Guidelines) for specifications on accessible elements.  (Always consult state/local building code officers first -- see no. 4 below -- to see if more stringent compliance is required for specific elements.)

These federal accessibility codes will not, of course, address specific liturgical elements and spaces, but will offer guidance on general accessibility information.  The following specifications for critical elements and areas are taken from the 2004 ADAAG:  number and dimensions of parking spaces, accessible routes (doors, hallways, ramps for entrances and sanctuaries, walking surfaces, elevators and lifts), number and dimensions for wheelchair seating areas (stackable, removable chairs are an excellent option), restrooms, wheelchair space allowances, reach ranges, assistive listening systems for the deaf and hard-of-hearing and other communication elements and features, protruding objects, stairways and handrails, audio/visual fire alarm systems, accessible floor and ground surfaces, height of tables or counters, kitchen areas in parish halls/centers, and outdoor recreation areas where parishioners might gather for social events.  Parishes can also consult suppliers and dimensions for accessible lecterns for those parishioners called to proclaim God's Word who use wheelchairs.

4. Religious organizations may be exempt from federal accessibility regulations, but many U.S. states require them to comply with their building codes when planning new construction or alterations. Contact your State Building Code Office for information on your state and local requirements.

5. The National Catholic Partnership on Disability (NCPD) was established in 1982 to foster implementation of the 1978 U.S. Catholic Bishops Pastoral Statement on People with Disabilities. NCPD works to advance inclusion in the church and society and is a great resource for direction, strategies and support.

6. Parishes and dioceses may also consider incorporating the Principles of Universal Design in their construction projects, instead of “simply” including accessibility features. Universal design is more inclusive and asks at the outset of the design process how a building can be made both aesthetically pleasing and functional for the greatest number of users.(11)  The accessible features will be an expected part of every place, and become an interwoven part of every facility, enhancing opportunities for everyone. (12)  The “access,” therefore, becomes invisible or transparent. (13)  To learn more about universal design, visit the Institute for Human Centered Design at Adaptive Environments in Boston, MA.

7.  An accessible or universally designed church means that all parishioners are able to enter, exit and utilize all areas of the built environment.  This includes the church buildings, social centers, schools, diocesan, parish and religious education offices.  Even access to rectories and other residences should be included for those priests with various disabilities and the friends and relatives they may wish to invites for visits.

Even a cursory reading of the New Testament will reveal that care and concern for persons with disabilities was one of the most prominent and powerful notes of Jesus’ earthly ministry.(14)  Our faith teaches us that the church building is a sign and reminder of the immanence and transcendence of God, and must manifest the baptismal unity of all the faithful, conveying the image of the gathered community.(15)  When our church buildings present barriers to the full and active participation of all, the Body of Christ is harmed.(16)

The design and construction of accessible buildings will be an embodiment of the Church’s transmission of the Gospel.(17)  Design is indeed powerful and our architecture should reflect and announce the presence of God who calls the entire community to worship—a community which includes persons with disabilities.

Karen M. Murray, M.Div. is Coordinator of Disability for the Archdiocese of Boston, MA.

(1) "Our Perspective," Adaptive Environments: Human Centered Design (Boston, MA). Available online, Web site of Adaptive Environments.

(2) "Finding God in the (Architectural) Details," Barbara Bodengraven.  Light & Life: The Magazine of Weston Jesuit School of Theology (Spring/Summer 2007) 4.

(3) Built of Living Stones: Art, Architecture and Worship, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (Washington, DC: USCCB, 2000) preface, para. 9.

(4) Universal Design, Adaptive Environments: Human Centered Design (Boston, MA).  Available online, Web site of Adaptive Environments.

(5) "Letter from Birmingham Jail," Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, in Why We Can't Wait (1964).  Available online.

(6) Pastoral Statement on Persons with Disabilities, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (Washington, DC: USCCB, 1978), para. 18.

(7) Pastoral Statement on Persons with Disabilities, para. 18.

(8) Built of Living Stones, para. 214.

(9) Pastoral Statement on Persons with Disabilities, para. 23.

(10) Built of Living Stones, para. 211.

(11) "The Art of Universal Design," Ricardo Barreto (2000).  Available online, Web site of Adaptive Environments.

(12) "American Access," Valerie Fletcher (2004). Available online, Web site of Adaptive Environments.

(13) "Accessibility Regulations and a Universal Design Philosophy Inspire the Design Process," Architectural Record (2004).  Available online.

(14) Pastoral Statement on Persons with Disabilities, para. 4.

(15) Built of Living Stones, para. 50.

(16) Built of Living Stones, para. 211.

(17) Built of Living Stones, para. 171.

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