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The Task of Accessibility

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ON-CD257_wheelc_M_20170517165546With a dream of making our Sanctuary and worship services more accessible for people with mobility challenges, our FUMCFW Accessibility Task Force responds to concerns of First Church accessibility. 

One of the first duties of the Task Force was to listen to the concerns, perceptions and ideas of those who experience the access challenges in our church firsthand. As these thoughts were shared with the Task Force members, they became a springboard to wider dialogue. “People who have a mobility issue sometimes won’t ask for help,” explains Joan Gaspard, Task Force Chair. “They may not want to raise their hand to receive communion in their seat, for example, because they may feel like it just draws more attention to their challenges.”  Joan says that although some of the structural challenges in our Sanctuary may not be solvable, sometimes just seeing these issues through the eyes and point of view of those who are challenged goes a long way toward fostering the feeling of inclusiveness we seek. 

“At times we are sorely lacking,” the 1999 Task Force wrote in its initial appeal, “because our forefathers never thought about access when the Sanctuary was built.” Creating a five-page master list of changes requested, with costs ranging from zero to $150,000, the Task Force set out to make the changes, large and small, that have added up to a big difference for those who have mobility issues. Today, while many if not most of these items are long checked off, new or recurring challenges remain — and some, related to the historic structure of our building — will demand a unique blend of creativity and compassion to find further progress toward full accessibility.

When the American Disabilities Act of 1990 was created to “eliminate, insofar as possible, unnecessary barriers encountered by persons with disabilities” to public buildings and private buildings, it also issued a caveat that seemed to provide an out for churches: “The Standards under this article do not apply to a place used primarily for religious rituals within either a building or facility of a religious organization.”

Such is the challenge of calling a historic building home. “We continue to look for opportunities to make our building more accessible for all the services and programs that our church offers,” says Board of Trustees Chair Jerry Colwell. “There are several important accessibility improvements being considered by the Trustees over the next 12 months. The challenge in all this is how to make a building built in 1929 meet the accessibility needs of our congregations and guests today.” 

With the tireless work of this small but mighty Task Force to raise awareness and help bring about significant changes over the past two decades, First Church accessibility improvements to date include:

  • access ramps installed from Garden into Narthex to access Sanctuary, into Wesley Hall, and into Garden doors to access Welcome Center and first floor; existing elevators provide access from first floor to upper floors
  • handrails installed at Fifth Street Sanctuary entrance, at steps of chancel and into Sanctuary
  • wheelchair access to first floor restrooms; tall toilet availability and signage in each restroom
  • created mental health committee to address needs and procedures for assisting those with mental health challenges and their families
  • reconfigured West parking lot; multiple parking spaces now designated for special needs accessibility challenges in both West lot and Justin lot 
  • large print bulletins provided for Sanctuary worship services
  • listening devices to help those with hearing impairment have better control over sound levels and clarity (recently upgraded, along with additional speakers under balconies)
  • ushers trained to assist those with mobility challenges as needed
  • complimentary valet parking assistance provided each Sunday and for special church services in front of the Garden
  • improved Sanctuary and Narthex lighting
  • annual accessibility audit by Trustees

With the help of Neil and Ranella Franklin, Sharon Wynn, and Pat Petruska, we are now in the process of: 

  • exploring ways to create easier access for those with mobility issues — and safer accommodations for use of canes, wheelchairs, and walkers in our Sanctuary 
  • adding handrails in choir loft and balconies
  • locating, evaluating, and recommending additions/replacements to our mobility assistance devices including wheelchairs, walkers, and canes, with a centralized location, cataloging, and training for staff and volunteers
  • exploring opportunities with local mental health organizations to provide shared educational programs

Are We Welcoming to Everyone?

Believing that nothing says, “Welcome!” like easy access to all areas and opportunities of our church, our 15-member FUMCFW Accessibility Task Force is hard at work determining our congregation’s needs and our unique opportunities to be in ministry with people who have mobility and other challenges. 

The goal of this task force is to help facilitate a feeling of inclusiveness for anyone who may be experiencing access problems to our church and its services. By developing and implementing a plan in conjunction with the FUMCFW Board of Trustees, our church will not only become more accessible, but will be better able to embrace the gifts and graces of those whose challenges have kept them from becoming a part of our faith community and all we do together to Love God, Serve People, and Transform Lives.

Look for AccessFirst, a new blog authored by longtime church member Janie Burchfield, a person with spina bifida who will introduce us to a wide range of disabilities and ideas for how our church can welcome all people with special needs by removing any remaining boundaries, whether mental or physical, to including everyone in our community of faith. Seeking to build awareness of the accessibility challenges inherent to our architecture that remain in our church, help our extended church family better understand the perspective of those who struggle with mobility issues, and to see these challenges — and the solutions we develop together — through the eyes of compassion and grace, AccessFirst will inspire us to think differently, laugh together (Janie’s quick wit and engaging sense of humor will help us realize that sometimes that’s all you can do), and above all, see things through eyes of compassion and love for all.

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