Access for All

March 25th, 2012
Image © Leo Reynolds | Flickr | Used under Creative Commons license

From sermons, choirs, and baptisms to concerts and community events, the church's front platform (chancel or stage, depending on your tradition and building style) plays a key role in both getting God’s Word out and in pulling the congregation and community together. For wheelchair users, having an inaccessible platform can send a message of limitation and exclusion, rather than of welcome and inclusion.

Although churches are not required by the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to provide stage access to the public, they are required to take their current and future employees’ needs into consideration if access to a stage is part of their jobs. State and local laws may also require access for those with disabilities, particularly if church facilities are used for daycare, recreation, or other public multi-use purposes.

So, while churches may not always be bound by the “letter of the law” to provide platform access for all, more churches are obeying the “spirit of the law” by taking the needs of wheelchair-bound employees, members, and visitors into account.

Some churches may not recognize the need for platform access until faced with an individual specifically requesting access. While this is good for raising awareness, it may be too late if visitors with disabilities do not return because of the implication that leadership will be off limits to them.

Nashville marketing professional Amy Saffell, who has been in a wheelchair her whole life, says the pastor's attention to platform-accessibility made a huge difference in the welcome she received as a visitor at the church she now calls home. The pastor "made sure to acknowledge that their current chancel wasn’t accessible," said Saffell. "They were in the process of building a new sanctuary that would have a ramp up to the chancel, and he let me know that he would love for me to help with worship at any time and that it would be really easy once the building was complete."

(Read Saffell's full story: Embracing Disability in Congregations.)

While permanent access ramps are an essential design consideration for new construction or renovation projects, most churches cannot afford the structural changes and facility downtime that such a ramp project can require. Temporary ramps, however, can be heavy, unsightly, and take a long time to set up and take down with each use. Many churches are finding portable lifts to be the most viable solution, since they raise and lower vertically like a permanent lift but can be moved as needed to multiple locations and even used with portable stages.

“One of our choir members had been singing on stage with us for years when she lost the use of her legs and had to use a wheelchair,” says Keith Sain, Facility Manager at Christ United Methodist Church, a multi-site church based in North Carolina. “Getting on stage to sing with the rest of the choir was huge in her heart. Several pastors in our conference also had mobility challenges and would need stage access.”

To provide stage access to those with disabilities, Sain sought a portable wheelchair lift that would satisfy their need for space-efficient aesthetics, safety, value, and long-term reliability. They chose one from Ascension, a Tucson, Arizona-based manufacturer of portable and permanent wheelchair lifts, that requires only 5.5 feet of linear space, replacing up to 65 feet of linear ramp a 60-inch stage would have required. (The ADA requires at least twelve inches of ramp length for every one inch in rise.)

Aesthetics, ease of use, and price are all major considerations when considering alternatives to ramp construction. Since the stage is the center of attention at worship services or community events, the lift should not be so obtrusive as to distract worshipers. Many portable lifts use a machine tower (which can be up to 72 inches tall) to house the drive mechanism, but fortunately, some portable lifts have solved this aesthetic design challenge by eliminating the machine tower. (For more info on portable lifts, visit

Especially in traditional sanctuaries, people may argue that accessibility modifications spoil the look of the chancel area with "ugly" equipment. But inaccessibility sends a message far uglier to people the church should be welcoming.

Discuss: Is your platform wheelchair-accessible? If so, was your worship space designed that way or did you add a ramp or lift? If not, what factors are holding you back?

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