Most churches will be aware of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, which is now part of the Equality Act 2010, but many do not know the extent to which the Act affects their fellowships. You as a church provide services (not just your Sunday meetings, but other activities) for the public and are therefore considered to be service providers under the Act. You are required to make “reasonable adjustments” for people with disabilities, such as providing extra help or making changes to the way you provide your services. You are also required to make “reasonable adjustments” to the physical features of your premises to overcome physical barriers to access.
Although these adjustments should have taken place 16 years ago this month, many churches have still not taken action to make reasonable adjustments! And many think that one-off provision of an accessible WC or a temporary ramp is enough.
There are many practical changes that you can make to your church building that will enhance the facilities, be more welcoming and be more comfortable for all people. You can do so much to facilitate full participation by everyone, including people with disabilities. For example:
- Provision of level access and lightweight doors means parents with pushchairs and elderly people benefit, as well as wheelchair users.
- Good lighting benefits people who are deaf, have hearing impairment, are lip readers, are partially sighted or are elderly.
- Good colour contrast (between ceiling and walls) helps visually impaired people to get a proper perspective on the size of the room and can be an attractive design feature.
Even where you think you have provided facilities and made reasonable adjustments, there are always areas that can be improved. These could include:
- Providing an accessible parking space(s) near the entrance and making sure edges or drops in level in the car park and grounds are clearly marked.
- Making sure any ramps are compliant (e.g. not too steep) and there are handrails fitted to steps, as well as making sure there is a platform and space at the top of ramps to allow doors to be opened.
- Regularly checking to remove or clearly mark any obstacles at low level or not easily visible, to help people with partial sight not to trip, and that access routes are not blocked for wheelchair users. Unnecessary mats, misleading colour schemes or unnecessary changes in levels should be avoided on access routes. Fire exits and WCs should be clearly signposted.
- Providing an alarm for your accessible WC, ensuring the toilet door opens outwards (in case the person falls over in front of it) and that you have located the basin near enough to the WC, installed the correct rails and have a colour contrast between the rails and the walls.
- Having someone at the entrance to welcome and help people with disabilities to enter the building. There should be adequate preparation, ensuring the lights are working, the entrance and other areas are lit properly, large print books are available, having pencil and paper ready for communicating with people who are deaf, spaces for wheelchair users are cleared etc. Any special arrangement in relation to Covid-19 should also be considered in advance.
- Checking there is a consistency with signs around the building and that they are placed at an appropriate height on the wall, so that wheelchair users can read them, as well as good use of symbols, as these are easy to understand, and a mix of upper and lower case for people with dyslexia. The lettering should be contrasting with the background and not cluttered.
Church Growth Trust has a number of briefing papers on some of the above subjects and have just published a new briefing paper on “The Equality Act – making church buildings fully accessible”, which is designed to help you understand your responsibilities and give examples of good practice for making your buildings fully accessible for people with disabilities. It can be found here