Things to Consider

Accessibility: An Equivalent Experience

November 14, 2008

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CommunionWhen the Roman Catholic Church discusses accessibility, two viewpoints emerge:

» A concern for sacramental accessibility.

» A concern for building accessibility.

This article explores how choices regarding barrier-free access can affect sacramental inclusion.

One of my favorite songs is All Are Welcome by Marty Haugen (GIA Publications). The song’s refrain, “all are welcome, all are welcome, all are welcome in this place,” invokes a personal desire to design worship spaces that accommodate everyone. Marty does not list who is included. Instead, he calls for a place where love can dwell, where prophets speak, where all are named. I believe this is one of our fundamental commands; to design without causing harm to others. Yet, this is not always the case!

In the United States, barrier-free building access has been a prominent issue for architects since the 1990 passage of the American with Disabilities Act. Preceding this, the National Catholic Partnership on Disability (formerly, the National Catholic Office for Persons with Disabilities) was established in 1982 to further implementation of the 1978 Pastoral Statement of the U.S. Catholic Bishops on People with Disabilities. In 1995, the U.S. Bishops published Guidelines for the Celebration of the Sacraments with Persons with Disabilities. Then in 1998, the bishops identified ten principles to establish a framework for access and inclusion. Concurrently, designing a barrier-free building has been discussed in every recent book published on church design. What I believe is missing from this overwhelming dialogue is a focus on differences between accommodation and equivalency.

Worship spaceThe Goal of Equivalent Experience: Five Steps

Compared to fifty, forty or even thirty years ago, people with disabilities today do find it easier to access a church building. Is more needed? Yes! I am often disappointed when visiting a new church. I find sanctuary wheelchair ramps tucked out of sight, an ambo with no height adjustment, water untouchable at the baptismal font, or segregated seating. Often architects, builders and the Church have taken an only if required tactic. This minimal approach is inappropriate when the purpose is to welcome everyone while enhancing their worship experience. Five steps are required to achieve a goal of equivalent experience.

» Be intentional in discussing prejudices.
» Start with a focus on full, conscious and active participation.
» Explore situations disabled people face when in a worship environment.
» Don’t succumb to the belief that it is too difficult to accomplish.
» Think inclusivity, not separation.

The first step is recognizing that prejudices still exist regarding inclusion of people with disabilities.  Do we avoid meeting people with a physical disability? Have we accepted a person’s mental capacity as being in God’s plan?  We recognize prejudices still exist when only lip service is given to the subject of accommodating people with disabilities. It is our responsibility to facilitate a design process that explores prejudices and misconceptions, so as to change beliefs and attitudes.

The Church seeks to give everyone a full, conscious and active participation in the liturgy (Constitution on the Sacred Lilturgy, n. 14).  A common approach to judge active participation is to think in terms of a person’s experience. But for a person with a disability, how can their experience be similar to an able-bodied person? Can a person in a wheelchair, who uses a walker, who trucks around an oxygen tank, or who is deaf or blind have the same kind of full and active worship experience? Probably not, but does that mean I must stop pursuing such an objective? I don’t think so!

A step in the pursuit of this objective is for able-bodied persons to place themselves into simulations that mimic those faced by a disabled person. For instance, able-bodied persons might put on a full leg brace and try to move into and then sit in a typical pew. They will soon realize that a seat without any front obstructions would have worked. Two people might try to pass each other while in wheelchairs and realize how a narrow side aisle can become too restrictive. A designer cannot fully understand problems facing people unless he or she experiments with creating comparable situations. Designers should go and experience before they design.

Annointing the AltarBy now, a designer of worship spaces might be thinking, “I cannot do everything, the budget is too restrictive.” Doing everything is not what I am advocating. What I do suggest is that a designer should meet with disabled parishioners at the parish for which she or he is working. Take into consideration their concerns; look into issues that hinder their ability for full, conscious and active participation. Of course, this requires more effort than merely applying codes, regulations, or guidelines, but it is certainly worth doing!

The U.S. Bishops' Built of Living Stones contains four paragraphs that are specifically directed towards the issue of accessibility (nos. 211-214). A critical phrase occurs in paragraph 211 where it asks for the “full integration of persons with disabilities into family, community, and Church, and to overcome the tendency to isolate, segregate and marginalized those with disabilities.” Yet, in the very next paragraph this statement is contradicted by endorsing placement of “an unobtrusive ramp” for people with disabilities. It is this paradox of exhorting full integration and then recommending the hiding of a ramp, which works against full integration. Simply put, when we isolate, we create exclusion. When we offer alternative paths, we infer one route is preferred or better than the other. We symbolically indicate that a difference does exist.

The design goal is to create an equivalent experience. Keep in mind that it is impossible to create the same experience for both an able and disabled person. My definition for equivalent experience is to create a similar physical experience while maintaining a person’s dignity. I offer an example to illustrate this concept.

In most places of worship, the sanctuary is elevated several steps above the nave. Being good designers, we make the sanctuary accessible and build either a ramp, a wheelchair lift, or establish a level connection from the back row of seating to the sanctuary. What has occurred? A person in a wheelchair or using a walker or crutches must now take a different path into the sanctuary than the presiding minister, lector, altar server, or communion minister. Even worse, these people never participate in a ministerial manner because they feel excluded.

The Cathedral of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Dodge City, Kansas is a perfect example of a design that supports equivalent experience. The ramp leading to the sanctuary has a gradual slope allowing everyone, including people in wheelchairs, using walkers or crutches to easily navigate up and into the sanctuary. The floor texture and color visually connects the nave to the sanctuary, symbolically indicating this is the path to take. The ramp is wide to allow ministers to process side-by-side. The result is one path that every person takes, whatever their capacity. It is as close to an equivalent experience as can be offered. (For more design ideas on equivalent experience please refer to my “Practical Tips for Equivalent Experience.”)

Our Lady of GuadalupeI hope I have demonstrated that achieving equivalent experience is not about doing a better job of barrier-free design. Rather, it is an approach that seeks to learn and understand the connections between disabilities, accessibility, active participation, and liturgy.

Care to comment on this article or ask Robert Habiger questions? Write us:

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


Practical Tips for Equivalent Experience
Worship & Technology: Active Participation is Key (Part 1 and Part 2)

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