Church Accessibility


A Report From Washington

By Kim A. Lawton

How hard will the Americans with Disabilities Act hit your budget?

When President Bush signed the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibiting discrimination against the disabled and requiring expanded accessibility to public facilities, two erroneous assumptions arose:

* Myth #1: Churches are totally exempt from all portions of this law.

* Myth #2: In order to comply with the ADA, churches will be forced to the brink of bankruptcy by massive structural retrofitting.

The reality: the ADA is a complicated statute, and, as is the case with any new law, the implications will be worked out through future litigation. However, the law has provided some clear-cut guidelines for churches to determine whether or not they need to comply.

According to the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs (BJC), two provisions directly affect churches:

* Public accommodation. Churches are completely exempted from federal requirements ensuring that facilities are accessible to the disabled from the general public.

Important: It is not yet clear whether churches will automatically get this exemption or will have to apply for it. The BJC advises churches to check with an attorney about this closer to January 1992, when the public-accommodation provisions take effect.

* Employment practices. Some larger churches will have to comply with provisions that:

Prohibit hiring discrimination on the basis of a disability. Note: According to Gammon and Grange, a Washington, D.C.-based law firm specializing in nonprofit law, “The law still concedes the rights of churches and religious organizations to choose employment candidates that subscribe to the same faith as does the organization, so long as
they follow the other prescriptions within the ADA.”

Require facilities to make “reasonable accommodations” for all disabled employees. Key factors: A church will be forced to comply with this section if it has 25 or more employees for 20 or more weeks a year between July 29, 1992, and July 29, 1994. After July 29, 1994, a church will have to comply if it employs 15 or more persons for 20 or more
weeks a year.

Implication: A church that isn’t required by law to become handicap accessible to the public may still need to make structural changes in order to become accessible to employees with disabilities.

Will It Cost Much?

Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, chief force behind the ADA, asserts that the law will not place an “undue burden” on small businesses, such as churches. He points to a survey done for the government, which found that “most accommodations cost between $50 and $100.” .,

Harkin says the act:

* Has “minimal requirements for retrofitting existing facilities.”

* Reserves its most rigorous accessibility requirements for new construction.”

Potential problem: However, according to California attorney John S. Butler, determining the amount of structural change needed to “reasonably accommodate” disabled employees may be tricky business.

It would depend on the nature of the disability and the size of the church, and the likelihood of this being a potentially consistent situation,” Butler says. “The statute appears to intend a lot of flexibility, but it is also clear that it is all right for the employer to have to spend money to do this `reasonable accommodation,’ ” he adds.

The people in Washington tell the end result, but they don’t endorse a particular way of doing it,” says Bill Lind, president of Lindustries in Massachusetts. “There are many approaches to fixing a problem.”

Important tactics: Before being talked into costly structural changes, follow these steps:

* Consult state authorities, such as the Architectural Barriers Board.

* Ask the contractor or the building inspector to document what you are required, in writing, to do.

* Seek an attorney’s advice.

Reason: Unscrupulous manufacturers, contractors, and building inspectors may feed churches’ fears about complying with the ADA in order to sell their own services.

How to Improve Accessibility

Structural changes to better accommodate the disabled don’t necessarily have to become budget busters. For many years, churches have installed and used elevators and lifts to improve accessibility, and here are some other solutions:

* Ramps

A ramp can be expensive when made of concrete, but it may work just as well when made of other materials, such as wood. The price of ramps also varies according to the complexity of the design.

* Wheelchair accommodations. Shorten just a few pews interspersed throughout the sanctuary, and you signal that people with disabilities aren’t relegated to second class seating. Choose low-pile carpeting to make maneuvering easier. Tip: Consult with disabled persons to determine other barriers.

* Doors. Door levers are easier to operate than doorknobs. A Leveron retrofit door lever made by Lindustries of Massachusetts fits over existing doorknobs for less than one tenth the cost of replacement hardware. Also: Without excessive cost, metal kickplates can also be added to the bottom of doors to allow for easier opening.

Just Do It

Whether your church is covered under the ADA employment provisions or not, most legal experts advise churches to conform voluntarily to the ADA standards to the best of their abilities, and certainly to include accessible features in any new buildings or renovations.

Practical considerations:

* The ADA standards likely will become the pattern for state and local codes, which may not exempt churches as does the federal law.

* Property value could drop significantly if your church isn’t accessible to the disabled and the purchaser would have to comply.

* The ADA standards will likely become society’s expected norm.

Moral consideration: According to Steve Jensen, executive director of the Christian League for the Handicapped, Christian commandments about love and compassion compel churches to become more accessible. “It will be an embarrassing indictment when ten years from now the only building a disabled person cannot get into in this country is a church,” Jensen says.

Kim A. Lawton is Washington editor for CHRISTIANITY TODAY magazine, working out of Washington, D.C.

(The above material was published by YOUR CHURCH, 1991)

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