Church Worldwide: 25 Years Later, Houses of Worship Living up to Spirit of Disabilities Act

As the United States celebrated the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act in July, celebration focused on progress made in accessibility and inclusion in the workplace and public spaces.
Although the ADA didn’t require accommodation and accessibility in places of worship, many went ahead and did it anyway.

Projects achieve the best results by involving, in a meaningful way, all affected parties at the outset of the process. That’s especially true when faith communities build, renovate, or retrofit their sanctuaries, social halls, and restrooms to make them fully accessible.

Encouraging people with disabilities to participate in facilities planning at the beginning and in a formal way is evolving. However, some tentative steps have been taken by some extraordinary people.

In the rural community of Borculo, Mich., not far from Grand Rapids, the Christian Reformed Church occupies a 125-year-old building built in a style familiar to the area. The sanctuary is a few steps above ground level, accessible by a concrete ramp and a motorized lift. But until a few years ago, the basement—where the bathrooms, social hall, library, and classrooms are—could only be reached by steps and an awkward chair lift. With numerous seniors in the 300-member congregation, the church began to study how best to make the basement accessible.

One of the key members of the committee was Pat Huisingh, who had grown up in the church. Huisingh, who has muscular dystrophy, uses a power wheelchair. Until a few years ago, she was an insurance agent and active in her church, singing in the choir, teaching Sunday school, and working with young people. Now she serves as a regional representative on disability issues for her denomination.

She made the case to the building committee and then to the congregation that they needed a full-sized elevator, no small expense for a church of that size. In part, she believes, “because I’ve grown up in the church, and they’ve seen the extent of my disability,” they voted to approve the elevator, which also accommodates other power chair users, including a college student and an elementary schoolgirl.

Huisingh said this sends an important message to people from the area who visit Borculo Christian Reformed Church for weddings, funerals, and vacation Bible school: “We don’t exclude.” As a result, such visitors may consider becoming members.

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