Does your building accommodate people with disabilities?
Could a person using a wheelchair comfortably attend services at your church? Would a person with hearing impairment be able to understand the pastor’s sermon? Churches are places where everyone should feel welcome, regardless of their physical condition, so it’s important to make your ministry buildings accessible and welcoming to as many people as possible.
What does the law say?
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), passed in the early 1990s, is considered the primary federal law when it comes to accommodating people with disabilities. The ADA requires organizations that serve the public to remove physical barriers from their buildings, as long as the barriers are removable without much difficulty or expense. In most cases, however, the ADA does not apply to buildings controlled by religious organizations. There are some exceptions:
- If a religious organization employs 15 or more people, it must comply with the ADA with respect to employees.
- When a non-religious entity rents a building from a religious organization, it is the renter’s obligation to make sure the facility is ADA-compliant, if applicable.
- If a religious organization receives funding from the federal government, it must comply with the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which prohibits organizations from discriminating against those with disabilities based on their disabilities.
State and local laws may apply, as well. Check with a qualified local attorney to learn about the laws and building codes that apply to your ministry.
While your ministry may not be required to comply with the ADA, there are still reasons to make ministry buildings more accessible:
- Intent of the law. The ADA addresses the right of people with physical and mental disabilities to fully participate in all aspects of society. Churches are usually seen as a positive part of that society. By accommodating people with disabilities, churches abide by the intent of the law, even if they are not required to comply with the letter of it.
- Safety. What happens if a lack of adequate accommodations leads to injuries? For example, if stairs are the only way to enter a church and ushers try to lift a person in a wheelchair, an usher may hurt his back while doing so. Worse yet, an usher could lose his grip on the wheelchair, causing its occupant to fall out. The ministry could be held liable for injuries. By installing a ramp, lift, or elevator, the ministry would increase accessibility while minimizing risk.
- Spiritual/emotional. From the perspective of a church’s mission, this may be the most important reason to accommodate people with disabilities. Just like everyone else, people with disabilities need spiritual and emotional nourishment. Your ministry can help meet those needs, but physical barriers can make participation more difficult for people with disabilities—and may make them feel unwelcome. By removing physical barriers, your ministry can expand its outreach efforts to include more people. That may mean designating more handicapped spaces in the parking lot, installing assisted-listening devices, or renovating restrooms to be more accessible.
How does this affect insurance?
Keep your insurance agent in the loop whenever your church considers making changes to the building. Your agent can to help you obtain the proper coverage for building and renovation projects, as well as coverage for the new property the projects yield (such as elevators or ramps).
Consider the following insurance issues as you explore expanding the accessibility of your buildings:
- Property Insurance Limits. Any renovation project will probably increase your building’s value. It’s important to adjust the building’s insurance limits accordingly, so that you will be properly covered in the event of a claim. Be sure to add any new equipment to your property inventory, so you can keep your personal property limit at an accurate level.
- Builders’ Risk Property Coverage. If a ministry undertakes a building project and the contractor’s insurance policy leaves certain coverage gaps, the ministry may opt to obtain this additional coverage. Builder’s risk covers construction equipment, most machinery, and building materials related to the building project.
For up-to-date ADA resources, including building standards and employment regulations, visit ada.gov.