Things to Consider

Practical Tips for Equivalent Experience

November 14, 2008


OLG Sancutary+ Doorways are same for everyone: The door that the presiding minister uses to enter the worship space should also be available for use by everyone. Don’t keep this door closed or off-limits until the ministry procession occurs. This sends the wrong signal that only a worthy few may enter or that this pathway is reserved for an exclusive group.

+ Thresholds are markers: Provide textural, scale, and/or color changes at door thresholds. The textural and material scale change will allow the visually impaired to know when they are entering the worship space. Use this same technique to mark off space at the baptismal font, shrines, or other places needing a transition marker.

+ Doors are easily opened: Every door that is to be used by everyone must also be easily operable. To accomplish this requirement, doors can be left open, an usher/greeter may be assigned to operate the door, or the door may be designed with an automatic operation. Large ceremonial doors do not need to be hard to open. I have designed doors up to 10’x10’ in size that have a feather light touch to open.

+ Door handles are easily grasped: Even if the door has an automatic operation, people prefer to open the door without needing extra assistance. The desire is to be a fully capable person. The wrong door handle design can create unnecessary anxiety. Ceremonial doors should not be the code required exit doors. Not being exit doors, the designer can design the pull handles and push bar handles to allow children and the elderly the ability to open the door.

+ Blessing Water is accessible to everyone: At the baptismal font, everyone should have the opportunity to touch moving water. Design the font so a child, a person in a wheelchair, or a mother holding a baby can touch the water or have the water touch them.

+ Seating needs to provide options: Ideally the seating is designed to allow various options for people with disabilities. Both fixed pew and movable chair seating has advantages. Fixed pews allow stability to grasp when sitting, kneeling and/or standing. Having no obstructions in the front of some seating accommodates people whose mobility does not allow them to move sideways into the space between rows. Chairs allow easy accommodation of wheelchairs.

+ Distribute wheelchair spaces throughout the assembly: Segregating wheelchairs to the front, back, or to one location brings attention to their differences. Rather, provide locations throughout the seating so as to allow choice and the blending into the community of believers.

+ Make aisles wide enough for two wheelchairs: Not only will this facilitate passing of one wheelchair by another, but communion processions will not be as congested.

+ Lighting that is uniform: Avoid variation in lighting levels and keep all the lighting at seating at a similar degree of illumination. Reducing contrast also helps the visually impaired when moving in the space.

+ Do not silhouette people in sanctuary: Avoid large sections of window behind the sanctuary. Eye strain is reduced when a person does not have to compensate for the high levels of contrast and trying to focus on a face in shadow.

Worship Space+ Floor texture needs to designate zones and be slip resistant: Avoid highly polished floor finishes that can cause slipping and glare. When using a product with a floor texture, make sure that the material will not create a tripping hazard. Use floor texture or color changes to designate special locations within the worship environment, such as at baptismal font, shrine, or sanctuary.

+ Only one access to sanctuary platform: Design only one pathway that is taken to the sanctuary platform. Consider placing the altar on a generous floor area without being raised.

+ A sloped walkway, not a ramp, to the sanctuary: Make the pathway to the sanctuary at a slope that does not require handrails. Handrails are unsightly, but more important, when the slope is gradual, it is easier for people with a disability to move up and down the slope.

+ Keep steps at 6” height or lower: When steps are used to supplement the sloped pathways, keep the height of steps below 6” to allow people using crutches to more easily maneuver up and down the flight of stairs.

This list was started with the publication of the article, “Accessibility: An Equivalent Experience.” Please feel free to send ideas to the author to continue expanding the list.  You may also e-mail EnVisionChurch:

Robert Habiger is an architect and liturgical design consultant directing religious projects at Dekker/Perich/Sabatini, Albuquerque, New Mexico. He can be reached at

Photo credits:  Rob McHenry (Cathedral of Our Lady of Guadalupe) and Robert Habiger (Saint Francis of Assisi)


Accessibility: An Equivalent Experience
Worship & Technology: Active Participation Is Key (Part 1 and Part 2)

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