Did you know that Title III of the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act), which applies to places of public accommodation and commercial facilities, does not apply to religious organizations?
Well sort of.
The key phrase describing exempt spaces is "regularly and exclusively used for worship".
If there are parts of the building that are used by non-religious entities, those will need to be accessible, and then there is the 2015 IBC (International Building Code) which shares similar guidelines to ADA and does cover houses of worship.
It gets even more complicated when you start to look at specific guidelines by state. And then there are the local authorities having jurisdiction
Accessibility can get complicated fast.
Here are 7 things to keep in mind as your church considers how to become more accessible:
1. THIS ISN'T JUST ABOUT WHEELCHAIR ACCESS
"Disability rights laws go beyond mobility impairments," shares Ashley Pitts, senior consultant with Jensen-Hughes in Denver, Colorado who specializes in accessibility consulting. "The laws also protect the rights of people with other physical impairments, such as vision and hearing impairments and those with mental disabilities."
While most of us think about accessibility in terms of wheelchair ramps, much of it is about simply making the space easier to navigate. For example, part of the code restricts having anything sticking out from a wall more than 4 inches if it is below a certain height.
Not only is this useful for someone who is visually impaired to keep them from bumping into a light fixture or wall-mounted video display, but it also creates a corridor that is safer for anyone who might be distracted or looking the other way from running into a protruding object.
2. THINK OUTSIDE IN
"When it comes to accessibility, you want to first think about how a person arrives at a site and gets into a building.
This might be from a bus or from a parking lot," continues Pitts. "Common problems are that parking is too steeply sloped, there are gaps in the accessible route, and limited access to restrooms."
Consider that one break in the chain can make a building inaccessible. A church may have a lightly sloped ramp and a beautifully easy-to-navigate doorway, but if there is a 3-inch gap in a sidewalk that cannot be traversed, the whole thing falls flat.
"What might seem like a slight infraction could pose an obstruction or a safety hazard to a person with disabilities," adds Pitts. "Carefully considering how a person arrives and enters, accesses the building's spaces, participates in various functions, and then safely exits, will help to provide equal facilitation for people with disabilities."
3. MOST OF OUR EXISTING CHURCH BUILDINGS WERE BUILT BEFORE ADA WAS IN PLAY
If your church has a building built before 1990 before the Americans with Disabilities Act chances are that there was little thinking about accessibility. Jon Rollins, a principal with GFF, in Dallas, Texas recently worked with Texas Christian University on the renovation for the historic Robert Carr Chapel, in which accessibility was a major focus.
"The chapel is a very popular venue for weddings, but is also used for a wide variety of campus functions," explains Rollins. "The multilevel configuration made it difficult for those with mobility issues to participate. Circulation for people in wheelchairs or with walkers was really complex, and some elements were simply not accessible." GFF came up with design strategies that included internal ramps, changing floor elevations and adding a lift, but the most innovative win came from what they did for the platform.
By expanding it and making the BEFORE AFTER previously fixed elements movable, not only can the platform now be accessed by people with mobility issues, but it also created flexibility so that the chapel can be used more effectively for different worship styles, for concerts and other presentations.
4. DOORWAYS ARE HARDER THAN YOU WOULD THINK
"There are so many things to comply with," says Jeff Quinn, Principal with LIVE Design Group in Birmingham, Alabama. "Doorways in particular require attention.
You need to have a certain distance of clearance in front of the door and on the side of the doors." Jonathan Perry also a principal at LIVE Design Group adds, "We've automated many of our accessibility design solutions. For example, we have built the required clearances into our BIM [Building Information Modeling] Door Families [smart objects in REVIT software].
We've done the same thing with restrooms. It allows us to tell immediately if the design meets requirements as we are building it in 3-D." "In renovations, we will often need to reclaim space for restrooms from an adjoining office, closet or classroom, to create the needed clearances," says Quinn.
5. SOME ACCESIBLE DESIGN STRATEGIES ARE AFFORDABLE EVEN IN A RENOVATION
"Changing out door hardware to a lever handle for people with grip issues is economically feasible," continues Quinn.
Other strategies, like creating additional handicap parking spaces, adjusting the height of lavatories, making sure mats are anchored, or installing handrails and grab bars can be lower budget items.
"Repairing or replacing uneven or damaged flooring may be readily achievable in a renovation," highlights Pitts. "If interior signs are being installed to identify certain rooms or spaces, providing tactile signage that includes raised characters and Braille will assist people with vision impairments."
6. VERTICAL TRANSITIONS ARE THE HARDEST TO FIX IN AN EXISTING BUILDING
"Many times, churches have been added to over the years," says Quinn. "When floors didn't match, they would just put in stairs."
For many churches, corridors are too narrow to provide enough clearance and grades are too steep to make ramps practical. Elevator additions can run from $65,000 to $85,000 for a 2-floor elevator but that doesn't include the construction needed to accommodate the elevator which can easily add at least 20 percent to those costs.
One of the biggest challenges that GFF needed to resolve in the Robert Carr Chapel renovation were the vertical transitions. Rollins explains, "We were able to raise the floor elevation in the cloister and create an accessible route from the existing elevator landing in an adjacent building to the main floor level of the chapel. From there we added a wheelchair lift to allow people to go from the main floor to the chancel elevation."
Platform lifts can run between $30,000 and $50,000 installed, and can be used by anyone that is unable to use existing stairs.
7. IT'S A GOOD INVESTMENT
"When we are contacted to assist with accessibility for churches, we are thrilled because it means that they are forward-thinking and want to include everyone," shares Pitts.
Per a 2012 report by the US Census Bureau, 1 in 5 people has a disability, and it is common for us to develop mobility limitations as we grow older.
As aging worship facilities are renovated, we have the opportunity to remove barriers to connection, simply by shifting our point of view to one of someone who would have difficulty navigating our space.
When we do that, accessibility isn't just about compliance. It's about welcome.