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Accessibility is church’s goal, must become ’the norm’


It has been 25 years since the Episcopal Church first urged its members to make their buildings and services accessible to those with disabilities and that goal has not yet been fully achieved.

In 1982, the 67th General Convention established (via Resolution D120) a task force to consider how the church could become more accessible and how to ensure that people with disabilities would be given equal standing in the church.

In 1985, the 68th General Convention (via Resolution A087) re-iterated the call for the church to be accessible at all levels and in all programs to persons with disabilities.

In the hope of putting the issue “more in the front seat at least in terms of consciousness,” according to Canon Victoria Garvey of the Diocese of Chicago, the Executive Council, meeting in Parsippany, New Jersey June 11-14, passed a resolution again calling the church to be accessible to all.

The Council’s resolution “completes” Resolution D070 that was not acted on during the 75th General Convention, which met in June 2006. (The Executive Council can choose to “complete” resolutions because the 75th General Convention gave the Secretary of General Convention, Gregory Straub, the authority (via Resolution D098) to refer not-completed resolutions to the council or other interim bodies for consideration.)

Garvey, who is canon for lifelong Christian formation for the Chicago diocese, proposed Resolution D070 to the Convention. She began representing Province V on the Executive Council in November 2006.

The Council’s resolution (CIM005), offered by the Standing Committee on Congregations in Ministry, urges:

* dioceses to convene committees on disability concerns to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to ensure access for persons with disabilities to all church properties,
* congregations to designate a person or persons to be particularly responsible for disability concerns, and
* all congregations, affiliated organizations, and institutions of the Episcopal Church to use only facilities which are accessible to all persons.

Garvey told ENS that when one considers the signs that point people to Episcopal Church congregations -- the ones that say “The Episcopal Church welcomes you” -- calling for the church to be accessible to all is a “no-brainer.” The accessibility is possible in some parts of the church, Garvey said, but it must become the norm “all across the board.”

That includes paying attention to what might be called unseen disabilities, she said. For example, someone with a heart condition may appear to be otherwise able but may not be able to climb stairs. Hearing difficulties, which are often not discernable by others, can prevent many people from truly participating in liturgies or program, she added, giving another example.

If part of the reason for the slow progress towards accessibility has to do with consciousness-raising, Garvey acknowledged that cost and the snowballing effect of making changes have been very important also. Given the way the ADA and other building codes work, if a congregation begins to improve its accessibility, it is usually expected to become completely accessible.

“You do one thing and then you have to do 16,” Garvey said.

“It’s complicated,” she acknowledged. However, “if we really believe what we say we believe, then we really have to think about our priorities in the coming year and our budget,” she said of congregations who are trying to deal with the accessibility challenge.

Garvey knows where of she speaks. St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Barrington Hills, Illinois, where she also works in Christian formation, installed ramps in its effort to increase its accessibility, but it did not have a bathroom that was free of barriers to people in wheelchairs. So the parish decided to build one; the design took half of her office.

When Garvey proposed the original resolution to the 75th General Convention in 2006, it came with the explanation that said the Episcopal Disability Network reports that less than half of all dioceses have provided disability and contact information. The network said that since 1985, there have been several significant resolutions dealing with disability concerns that have been passed at General Convention which have not become widely known.

“If we are to achieve full participation of all disabled persons into the life of the church, we need a framework of responsible individuals who can work together in the local, diocesan, national and worldwide communities,” the explanation said, adding that reaffirming 1985-A087 “will breathe new life into all issues dealing with disability concerns.”


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