Monday, June 20, 2011

Access Denied 2, the Ecclesiastical Version

We have a new pastor at St. Anonymous, and yesterday was her first day to preach. I wanted to go see her, and wanted to take the wheelchair, even though my husband thought I could walk in and out if he let me off at the door. I was not too sanguine about walking on the new floor in the vestibule, since it's a mix of two different kinds of tile and even slight changes in grade make me wobbly. Besides, my foot has been feeling swollen and the elevated footrest on the wheelchair seemed like a good idea.

I could understand my husband's hesitations, however, because St. Anonymous is not really wheelchair accessible. It does have the requisite number of handicapped parking spaces, and a ramp from the parking lot to the sidewalk. It does not have automatic doors. True, there were lots of willing churchgoers to hold the doors open for us, but as I tried and failed  to convince the board years ago, there is a difference between having to be helped and doing it yourself. It's not as if automatic doors are of use only to people in wheelchairs. People with their hands full of parcels, parents pushing strollers, people who just don't have the strength to handle heavy doors all benefit from them. Even with someone holding the door open, it was hard to get across the threshold. I had been wheeling myself along from the parking lot, but it took my husband backing me up and getting a good fast start to get me over the threshold, which was not designed with wheelchair access in mind.

There was also no place to situate my wheelchair once I got inside. I wound up parked in a side aisle, worried that I might trip latecomers hurrying into church. It's not as if we have fixed pews. We have upholstered chairs, and I could have asked an usher to move one or two out of the way to give me a place to park, but I shouldn't have had to. There should have been a space or two available already, or at the very least, an usher should have moved a chair without being asked, just like they put up extra folding chairs when they see people standing without being asked. Seating people properly is the usher's job.

But the biggest problem with respect to accessibility is that there is no way to get to the second floor without climbing stairs. For the most part this isn't a problem. There are no stairs leading to the first floors of any of the buildings, and only two buildings have second stories. The education building has an upstairs, used mostly for the preschool, and in the sanctuary building, the choir rehearses, and keeps its robes and music,  in a loft on the second floor.

It was back when the education building was built that I pointed out the lack of wheelchair accessibility to the second floor. I was told if anyone ever did show up in a wheelchair, some way would be found to get them upstairs. That was when I pointed out how demeaning it would be to have to be carried upstairs. The answer I got was along the lines of, "Well, yeah".

That was 20 years ago.

Recently the church has undergone a multimillion dollar renovation. Part of the renovation involved enclosing some outdoor space to make a bigger entry, so the front door is new, and could just as easily have been given an automatic door opener. The old kitchen was also torn out and the small prayer room moved, opening up space next to the stairs for a gathering spot. That would have been a good place to put a small elevator. Those things would have cost money, but maybe instead of the imported Italian tile on the vestibule floor we could have used vinyl tile from the Home Depot. It wouldn't have been as pretty, but it would have been a lot easier to roll over.

I know, I should have spoken up when the plans were first unveiled. My experience from 20 years ago notwithstanding, I should have said something. 

The funny thing is, St. Anonymous advertises itself as "the friendly, welcoming church". The people are friendly and welcoming. They're just thoughtless. Not everybody has my experience of having a wide range of acquaintances who get around on wheels. Not everyone has attended a workshop in which she tried out getting down the hall, into the ladies room and back out again in two varieties of wheelchairs, powered and not. Not everyone spends some portion of their every working day thinking about access issues. I've been remiss in not sharing more of my experience and concerns with the rest of the congregation. I did once bring a wheelchair to vacation Bible school, and I gave a children's sermon with the help of an augmentative communication device, but those efforts were few and far between. 

Another Methodist church downtown keeps wheelchairs of its own for worshippers who need them.

But think about that again, "the friendly, welcoming church". The onus needs to be on some of the people who dreamed up the slogan to think about what that entails. It should be possible for anyone who can propel his or her own wheelchair to be able to cross the parking lot, get in the door, and find a seat. It should be possible to get into the hall where the restrooms are and into the restroom without having to ask strangers for help. It should not be necessary for aides or family members who need to push a chair for those who can't to have to body block a door while pushing a wheelchair through. That's what accessibility means, not a parking spot, a ramp, and our best wishes.

I've been going to that church for 25 years, my wheelchair is only temporary,  and still I was upset by my experience. I can't imagine any chair-using first time visitor being in a hurry to come back. I think no matter what the friendly and welcoming members say to them, the building says, "We don't  care whether you're here or not". Somehow I don't think Jesus approves of this message.

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