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His medical traumas raised awareness of disabled needs

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (BP)–Dave Bennett knows about overcoming barriers to sharing the gospel with people. As an evangelist, he’s been doing that for years. Today he is acutely aware of barriers most churches probably don’t think about — physical ones.
After a lifetime of “normal” physical mobility, Bennett has spent nearly two years of dealing with a temporary disability — a broken hip and ensuing complications. In the process, he has noticed that many churches still lack adequate accessibility for people with a variety of physical handicaps. And that’s often true even if the buildings have been designed to be handicapped-accessible.
For instance, on a recent tour of the Baptist Building in Jefferson City, he led the way to at least one place where a facility labeled handicapped-accessible actually could be difficult for a person in a wheelchair to enter.
“Whoever puts in handicapped-accessible facilities ought to at least try it out from a wheelchair and on crutches before they label it ‘handicapped-accessible,’” Bennett said.
That’s exactly the advice Lorraine Thal gives to congregations trying to make themselves more hospitable places for those with disabilities. Thal is coordinator of the Accessible Congregations Campaign, an initiative of the Washington-based National Organization for Disability.
“We like to encourage churches to ask someone with a disability to be a consultant,” she said. “They have to deal with the problem on a daily basis, so they may think of things other church members haven’t.”
Thal acknowledged even approaching the task of making a church building “disabled-friendly” can be daunting for a congregation — particularly a small, non-urban one. Besides the vast array of handicaps — everything from mental disabilities to blindness — there is the overwhelming size of the Americans With Disabilities act (ADA).
ADA is the landmark 1992 legislation that attempted to set standards for access to public places for those with handicaps.
Thal said resources are available to churches struggling with these issues. Besides recruiting a handicapped consultant, she suggests churches obtain copies of a book published by her organization.
“That All May Worship” provides detailed advice to congregations trying to make their buildings more accessible.
Thal also suggested churches should check with their national denominational offices for help. For churches affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, Jerry Grubbs is the contact person in the church architecture department of LifeWay Christian Resources.
Bennett said the benefits of reaching out to disabled people are worth the effort. “I think what we need to work for is a friendliness toward handicapped people, because the world they live in is so handicapped-unaccessible.
“If the church were handicapped-accessible, then the church would be one of the most friendly places they had ever been in. And that would make all the difference to them.”
Lorraine Thal can be contacted via Accessible Congregations Campaign, National Organization for Disability, 910 16th Street NW, Suite 600, Washington, DC 20006; phone, (202) 293-5960; Internet, www.nod.org.
Jerry Grubbs can be contacted at LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention, 127 Ninth Avenue, N., Nashville, TN 37234; phone, (615) 251-2466.

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  • Rob Marus