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Ministry teaches churches how to make facilities accessible

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (BP)–Removing barriers in church environments – both figuratively and literally – is a crusade that Bob Anderson eagerly looks forward to on a daily basis.

It’s the focus of his work as director of the religion and disability program at Birmingham’s Lakeshore Foundation.

The nonprofit organization, which has been operating since 1984, centers its services on issues dealing with individuals with physical disabilities.

“Our mission is to provide opportunities for people with physical disabilities to live healthy, active lifestyles and participate fully in their community,” Anderson said.

As the former chaplain of Lakeshore Rehabilitation Hospital, Anderson became acutely aware of the many challenges that individuals with physical disabilities face in the able-bodied world. He was especially in tune to the limited accessibility that people with physical disabilities face when attempting to find a place of worship where they can easily maneuver their adaptive devices such as a wheelchair, scooter or walker.

When Anderson approached the Foundation’s board of directors in 1995 about creating a program to assist the church community in this area, they agreed. The Lakeshore Foundation Religion and Disability Program was born with Anderson being the driving force behind it.

Anderson knows firsthand the struggles a person with a disability must overcome to attend a church service, let alone participate in one. The childhood memory of his wheelchair-bound cousin raising money door-to-door for a ramp so he could enter his church without the indignity of being carried, continues to inspire Anderson to take his cause to Alabama churches.

As part of Anderson’s job, he visits churches that are interested in leaning how to better include people with disabilities or want to make sure their facilities are compatible to the needs of the disabled.

“A growing number of churches are increasing their ability to welcome and include people with disabilities and their families. People need access not only to buildings but to the programs and activities of the church as well,” said Anderson, a member of Vestavia Hills Baptist Church in Birmingham Association. “Alabama is fortunate to have a resource program like ours available. We are the only state-based program of its kind for congregations.”

The general services that are offered to churches through the program are “discovery,” a basic education for a congregation about ministry and disability. It gives an overview to members about the gifts, abilities and needs of people with disabilities and their families. This includes on-site consultation regarding basic facility accessibility needs and general information that a congregation needs to know in order to most effectively include people with disabilities and their families.

Another component of the program is the “preparation” segment, which involves a detailed action plan regarding ministry and disability, and includes a workshop for members and key leaders. A complete assessment of a church’s current resources, interests and opportunities to best include people with disabilities and their families is a focal point of this segment. As part of the preparation services, a church member education is offered to enhance awareness of the need to address disability issues.

Attention is also given to the best way to tap the expertise of people with disabilities and their families and where to find educational resources to start disability ministries.

According to Anderson, the latest statistics reveal that there are 400,000 people in Alabama with disabilities. “That’s 18 percent of the general population,” he explained. “Nationally the country has seen an increase from 18 to 22 percent,” Anderson said. “Sixty-three percent of older adults have some type of disability.

Anderson believes with the aging of the largest group of baby boomers these figures will continue to increase. “By the year 2010 the first group of baby boomers will be retiring. Now is the time for churches to start preparing for this,” he said.

Anderson carries those statistics as the gauntlet of his crusade. “There are 8,494 churches in Alabama and 893 of them are in Jefferson County,” he said.

Anderson points out that churches are exempt from the Americans with Disabilities Act, a federal law passed in 1990 which forced businesses and public institutions to comply with federal guidelines for accessibility for the physically disabled. Consequently there are a great number of churches that are not accessible to people with disabilities.

Anderson said the demand for conferences and workshops on the issue is rapidly growing.

That was the case recently in Tuscaloosa where Tuscaloosa Baptist Association helped sponsor an area-wide workshop. The Lakeshore Foundation Religion and Disability Program in conjunction with Samford University presented “That All May Worship,” a daylong seminar with 46 people in attendance.

The audience was made up of various community churches as well as interested individuals and local government agencies. The workshop focused on giving churches an assessment of their physical facilities as well as basic steps in implementing programs for disabled members, both physically and mentally. Sessions ranged from, “why the topic of disability is relevant to every congregation,” to “what the families of people with disabilities look for in a congregation.”

During an open forum one person with a recent disability commented, “Just the changes in how people relate to you can be debilitating. It’s been a real eye-opener,” she said.

“Even something as simple as the wording in your church bulletin can make difference,” Anderson said. “It’s just as easy to say, ‘the congregation may sit or stand’ as it is to say ‘will the congregation please stand.’

“Many people assume that they have no church members with disabilities because they do not see them. That’s just not the case,” Anderson said.

“Following attitudes, not having access to restrooms is the number one reason a person with a disability will not return to church.

As an example he cited a case where a church decided to make renovations to their building.

“They were given a $20,000 check to go toward the addition of an elevator. It was made by a church member in a wheelchair who could not come to church because the facility was inaccessible,” he said. “I once had a man tell me that is was easier for him to get his wheelchair into a bar than into a church. We’ve got to change that,” Anderson said.
(BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo titles: AN OPEN CHURCH and FACING OBSTACLES.

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  • Sue Ann Miller