have recently returned from Columbus, Ohio and my seventh General Convention. In 1985 I attended my first General Convention in Anaheim,
California as a newly appointed member of The Presiding Bishop’s Taskforce
on Accessibility. All of my experiences are framed from the point of view of
an exhibitor and a people-watcher (actually people-listener, since I am blind).
want to answer the question, “How accessible are we?” from two standpoints.
First, how have the numbers of congregations which have become architecturally accessible increased in twenty years? Second, how has our understanding of accessibility matured during that period?
best guess is that no more than 10% of our church buildings are totally accessible.
That number has increased in the past twenty years but not a great deal. Retrofitting
is very costly. Many congregations have tinkered with modifications like accessible
bathrooms or pew cuts, but other important changes – sound systems, ramped access to the altar area, etc. have remained out of reach. While new construction must be accessible in most regions of the country and
while new construction is cost effective, not many new buildings are being built.
the very good news is (as the people I have talked with at this General Convention have taught me) there has been a radical
change in the way we understand “accessibility” and the reasons why we choose to choose to become accessible.
accessibility is only the first step, and from my prospective, certainly not the most important one. Far more important is attitudinal accessibility. When we believe
that people with disabilities are beloved children of God with gifts to share and lessons to teach, we willingly and joyfully
incorporate those with disabilities. When we understand that the largest group
of people in the congregation who are disabled are our older members we eagerly find ways of keeping these people active.
in five of us in this country has a disability. By the time one reaches the 65
– 75 year old bracket, more than 40% of us are disabled. If we live long
enough, each and every one of us will acquire one or more disabilities.
people who talked with me at General Convention made or were making their buildings accessible not because of resolutions
passed at General Convention and not because of The Americans with Disabilities Act.
Rather, they wanted to allow their own members to remain active, contributing members of the community. They began with themselves and found that this loving, inclusive attitude soon brought new members into
served for twenty-one years in a building which was accessible from its inception. It
was built in 1958, many years before local building codes mandated accessible new construction and many decades before our
first resolution encouraging such accessibility was passed at General Convention. The
parish ramped its entrance, installed an elevator, and ramped the ascent to the chancel/sanctuary area. Their director of Christian Education was a wheelchair user as a result of childhood polio. Miss Nettie was beloved in that congregation and they wanted her to continue serving among them.
Episcopal Church has not yet become as accessible as it might be. But, we have
traveled a long way on the road to accessibility since 1985. We still need to
find ways to incorporate children with disabilities into the Christian Education program.
We need to accept more qualified people with disabilities into the discernment and Ordination process. We need to learn the lessons that people with disabilities have to teach and to accept the gifts they have
to offer. In sum, we must not continue to have outcasts for any reason in this