Saturday, October 15, 2011

In Tennessee, churches work toward better accessibility for people with disabilities

From The Tennessean:

When Paul Leichty was a Mennonite pastor, Sunday was the most stressful day of the week.

Not because Leichty had to preach and lead services. That was the easy part.

The worry was about his son, Nathan, who had Fragile X syndrome, which often made him irritable in social settings. Sometimes he’d act out in church, like the time he threw his shoe at a loud, animated pastor.

Leichty, director of the Goshen, Ind.-based Congregational Accessibility, was featured this week at a conference organized by Faith for All, a Nashville-based nonprofit that helps congregations become more accessible for people with disabilities. For many involved with the conference, that means focusing more on people and less on buildings.

Organizers want to see church members with disabilities experience the same worship as everyone else. In the past, when the word accessibility came up, churches thought about putting in wheelchair ramps or remodeling bathrooms, said Erik Carter, associate professor of special education at Vanderbilt University. He argues that instead, they should focus on how to meet spiritual needs. That starts by asking questions and making the first step in offering help, Carter said.

“The question we should pose is, ‘What could we do to help you be part of this congregation in ways that matter to you?’ ” he said. “That’s the same thing we should ask of everyone.”

Carter recently finished a study of 500 families of people with disabilities. About a third had changed congregations because their former place of worship didn’t meet their family member’s needs.

The good news, he said, is that often accessibility costs little money. And congregations can start small and build from there.

“You can do this with where you are right now if you just start one person at a time,” Carter said.

Vanessa Beasley is a Vanderbilt professor and a member of Second Presbyterian, where she attends a support group for parents of disabled children. Her son, Charlie, who is 8, has a rare condition called Grieg’s syndrome. During the worship services, Charlie goes to the children’s church program with a sixth-grader buddy named Nathan. Having another kid serve as his buddy makes Charlie feel like a normal part of the service.

“Like every other kid, he wants to fit in,” Beasley said.

She attended the conference to find ways to help Second Presbyterian better serve people with disabilities. Her family has found a community there. She wants other families to have the same experience.

“It’s been really important for me to try and make it better for people who feel they can’t go to church or go to synagogue,” she said.

Many people at the conference became interested in accessibility issues because of a family member.

That was the case for Thomas Boehm, founder of Faith for All. Boehm is a former minister and therapist who is now a doctoral student in special education at Vanderbilt. His son Seth has Down syndrome.

Boehm said making a personal connection between faith communities and disabled people is crucial. Otherwise, people might be able to get into the building but may remain spirituality isolated.

Once people make those personal connections, great things often happen, Boehm said. He believes people of all abilities can learn from each other.

Congregations of all shapes and sizes can become accessible, said Mark Pinsky, author of Amazing Gifts: Stories of Faith, Disability, and Inclusion, a forthcoming book from the Alban Institute.

Pinsky, former religion writer at the Orlando Sentinel, profiled churches that found ways to become more accessible as well as people with disabilities whose spirituality is an important part of their lives.

One story is about Lucas McCarty, a teenager with cerebral palsy from Mississippi who would often disrupt services at his family’s Episcopal church.

One day a family friend invited the teen to attend a Pentecostal service. There, he found a spiritual home.

“The kid loved it — it’s a Pentecostal church,” Pinsky said. “He falls down — no big deal. Everyone falls down. He shouts out — no big deal. That’s what everyone does.”

Kristina Brown, minister of community ministries at First Baptist Church in Murfreesboro (pictured), said becoming more accessible often doesn’t cost much money.

Four years ago, three sets of parents with disabled children approached leaders about First Baptist using the church’s gym and a classroom to run a program for their children. That program, called LEARN, now attracts about 50 families, Brown said. Some are church members, while many are not.

Brentwood Baptist Church runs one of the largest ministries for people with disabilities in Middle Tennessee. The church started offering sign language interpreters in Sunday services in the 1980s. In 1995, it hired the Rev. Brian Sims, who’d grown up with deaf parents, as pastor for a new deaf congregation. That congregation started with seven people and now draws about 140 on Sundays. The service is broadcast to about 25 other locations nationwide, where 1,400 people attend. Sims preaches using American sign language. As he signs, someone from the congregations speaks the sermon aloud. The church also runs an after-school tutoring program for deaf children.

Services are held in the Inman Deaf Chapel, which opened in 2004 and features a floating floor that allows worshippers to feel the vibrations of worship music and a sound system that can be piped directly into people’s hearing aids.