Group works to make congregations more accessible

Group works to make congregations more accessible

EqUUal Access offers guidelines, is creating a congregational certification program.


As you enter your congregation's building each Sunday, accessibility is probably what you think of first.

No? Then Suzanne Fast wants to talk with you. As president of EqUUal Access, the volunteer group charged with inspiring Unitarian Universalist congregations to become more accessible and inclusive, she has a few words to share on the subject.

"We still hear from time to time about congregations that don't see a need for accessibility improvements because they don't have anyone who uses a wheelchair, or who has a hearing problem. But accessibility is not just about the people who show up on Sunday. It's also about the people who aren't there—the ones who have quit coming because they can't get up the steps or because they can't hear the sermon," Fast said.

EqUUal Access is on a mission to help make all UU congregations accessible and inclusive. And not only inclusive, but to make UUs advocates for inclusivity in the larger community.

EqUUal Access came into being in 2008. The UUA also had an Office of Accessibility Concerns, directed by the Rev. Devorah Greenstein, but it was eliminated in 2009 as part of a reorganization following the financial recession.

EqUUal Access advises and encourages congregations on accessibility, inclusion, and disability justice issues. Fast, a member of the UU Church of Fort Myers, Fla., said the organization has about 170 members. It's new enough that much of its energy continues to go toward raising its visibility among congregations. "In terms of the awareness of our organization we have a lot to do," she said.

Congregations often don't think about accessibility, she noted, until a beloved member develops a disabling condition and starts using a wheelchair. "If this is a person who is integral to the life of the congregation, that often creates a willingness to be more inclusive," said Fast. "We all know that it's harder to discriminate against a particular person than the idea of a group of people." In other cases congregants come back from General Assembly energized about accessibility, inclusion, and disability justice issues, having witnessed a workshop on that topic.

EqUUal Access does more than encourage physical accessibility, Fast noted. "We're also working to change the way people think about disabilities. Some people think that people with disabilities have a defect they need to overcome. But when you accept that there are a lot of ways that people are different, then you can see the barriers that society sets up. Disabilities are just one of the ways that people are different. All people have abilities and are looking for places to worship, to serve, and to lead."

The organization also wants to help congregations advocate for inclusivity in the larger community. "We can help with how you talk with people so they understand the issues," Fast said. "There are lots of opportunities for justice work in the community. Even today there are still people who consider a disability a moral failure—a punishment for sin, or something that happened because we didn't all eat the right things or exercise enough."

She noted that most UUs still seem to equate disability issues with physical accessibility. Fast wants all of us to go further. "Most of the barriers that people with disabilities encounter are attitudinal. You can have all the ramps and sound loops in the world and not be inclusive.

"Accessibility is about whether you can get into the room, hear the service, use the order of service, navigate the website, attend the social function, participate in the class, get to the choir loft, use the pulpit, etc. Inclusion is about being accepted and valued for who you are, recognizing that disability is part of your experience but not the whole of it. An inclusive congregation does not dismiss those experiences, and accepts that we do not all experience the world in the same way."

Inclusivity is also about justice, she said. "In a justice-seeking congregation, people learn more about disability history and about the ways that people with disabilities are marginalized today. Justice-seeking congregations help people be more aware of how language and imagery can be hurtful. They are places where it is safe to point out hurtful language, and where people are willing to listen and to learn from these experiences. Justice-seeking congregations show up in support of disability justice issues in the public square."

The organization is currently working on several fronts. It is a partner with the Unitarian Universalist Association and the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, seeking ratification of the United Nations' Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

The mental health caucus of EqUUal Access recently created a free resource called "Mental Health Issues and Recommendations," for use by congregations.

The 30-page document was created to guide congregations in relating to people with mental disorders, including understanding their abilities, welcoming them into congregations, and advocating on their behalf.

Part of the impetus for creating it was the Newtown shootings. EqUUal Access wanted to raise awareness of the stigma placed on people who live with mental illness, and how congregations can confront that discrimination.

EqUUal Access has other caucuses, including one for people with hearing loss and one for seminarians with disabilities. "The seminarians are focusing on issues they are experiencing related to their placements," said Fast.

In 2011 EqUUal Access prepared Accessibility Guidelines, a general guide to help congregations work on accessibility and inclusion issues.

Certification program

EqUUal Access, in partnership with the UUA, is also working to create an accessibility certification program, much like the Green Sanctuary program. A field test began in June for the Disability/Ability Action Program, which will challenge congregations to become certified in accessibility, inclusion, and disability justice. It is expected to be available to all congregations in June 2015.

Congregations are encouraged to form local groups to work with EqUUal Access on accessibility issues. Congregations and individuals can also help with tax-deductible contributions at UUA Online Giving and by volunteering with the organization. EqUUal Access depends primarily on donations from members and friends. Everything the organization does is done by volunteers.

Mark Bernstein, growth development consultant for the UUA's Central East Regional Group, is UUA staff liaison to EqUUal Access. Many congregations have a long way to go to become accessible, he said.

"I still hear it often enough, 'Why do we need a ramp? We don't have anyone who uses a wheelchair,'" Bernstein said. "Congregations need to remember that accessibility is a growth issue. If they don't respond to the changing needs of members—who are getting older—and to the needs of potential new members, those people won't stay."

Bernstein said that EqUUal Access has raised its profile in the last several years. "There's still not a great awareness of it among congregations. But we have a board now that's very committed to increasing its visibility," he said. "EqUUal Access also has had a larger presence at General Assembly. Two or three years ago we held a workshop on disabilities and all of the seven or eight people who showed up were from the disabilities community. Then in Louisville last year the room was filled. The word is starting to get out."

He expressed thanks to the Rev. Dr. Terasa Cooley, the UUA's program and strategy officer, and former UUA Executive Vice President Kay Montgomery for active encouragement in creating the certification program and in boosting the visibility of EqUUal Access in other ways.

Bernstein urged congregations to seek out accessibility resources in their own communities, including the American Association of Retired Persons and other advocacy groups. There are also lots of resources on EqUUal Access's website, including access to an email list, Access-L. "We can get people started," Bernstein said.

He added that many congregations may be afraid of the cost of accessibility projects. "Many congregations think they have to spend thousands to be all-inclusive. But the average cost of a physical accommodation in workplaces nationally has been shown to be somewhere around $500."

Bernstein added, "We don't want congregations to feel like they have to meet some absolute standard [of accessibility]. But we also don't want them to do nothing. There are a lot of things they can do that are low cost or have no cost."

Fast noted, "The first task in becoming a physically accessible congregation is to be aware of physical barriers in your facility. Be honest, and make that information easily available. Consider having an accessibility page on your website, with pictures and descriptions, so that visitors have a better idea of what coming to your congregation might entail. It also encourages us to be honest with ourselves. Sometimes living our values means allowing ourselves to be uncomfortable when we fall short of the mark."

Bernstein hopes that congregations will consider designating a person to become a member of EqUUal Access. "There is strength in numbers. We'd love to have thousands of members. A congregation can also form a team to look at disability issues within the congregation. This is a justice issue, a moral issue, and a growth issue." Fast added that congregations can also engage with EqUUal Access on Facebook and Twitter.

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