Why Places of Worship are Starting to Prioritize Accessibility

By: Sarah Roberts

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You often hear about businesses and universities taking a hard look at accessibility to improve their inclusivity and reach larger audiences. However, places of worship, which play a pivotal role in many people’s daily lives, are often falling short. Fortunately, many religious institutions are now taking steps to improve accessibility and ensure they’re providing inclusive faith-based experiences. Part of the reason these institutions haven’t had the same focus as other organizations is that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the US’s landmark accessibility law, exempts them from many of its provisions. 

In contrast, government entities, most employers and private businesses need to meet the law’s requirements. Today, the partial lack of ADA coverage for churches, temples, mosques and other religious institutions remains. Still, some religious organizations are starting to take more proactive steps toward inclusion. Leaders at these organizations may know that they don’t have to adhere to the letter of this law, but they also realize that it’s the right thing to do.  

Here’s what some religious organizations are doing to achieve accessibility standards despite their legal exemptions.  

How religious institutions are boosting accessibility 

For many people, spiritual faith is a significant part of their life. Imagine how frustrating it would be to find that the organization you turn to for comfort, support and guidance leaves you out because of a disability. That’s what happened in a Tennessee church when a man in a wheelchair discovered he couldn’t navigate the space between the pews. The parishioner also couldn’t stay in the aisle where his chair blocked the way for others. He and his family ended up sitting in folding chairs in the church’s narthex.  

A new minister found the situation unacceptable and hired contractors to remodel some of the pews to provide accessible seating. The situation is interesting because, in most public spaces, such access would have been mandatory for over three decades. Fortunately, the Tennessee church is one of many that have started taking action, despite their exemptions from laws like the ADA.  

Additionally, in the Chicago area, a Muslim man who uses a wheelchair is advocating for more accessible mosques, braille versions of the Quran and childcare for children with disabilities. Those efforts are also proving fruitful, indicating religious organizations are becoming more receptive to the needs of diverse communities.  

building on the corner of a street

How churches are accommodating people who are Deaf 

Inadequate communication is often a barrier to many who want to attend and participate in religious services. Fortunately, there are numerous churches that now cater to the Deaf community.  

Services in sign language

Many of them provide services which include sign language interpreters or ministers who sign for themselves. However, these organizations aren’t as widespread as they’d have to be to accommodate everyone who needs these services. Not only is sign language only available at a minority of religious services, but also, not all people who are Deaf or hard of hearing use sign language.  

In fact, statistics indicate that only about 1% of the people who are Deaf or hard of hearing in the US use American Sign Language. Nearly 50% of people 75 and older experience disabling hearing loss, and individuals who lose their hearing later in life might be less likely to learn to sign. Also, according to Pew Research, people 65 and up are the most likely to attend religious services regularly across all religions. Demographics, therefore, indicate that religious institutions likely serve a large population of people who are Deaf and hard of hearing but may not know sign language. 

Captions for inclusive services

One way to reach more of these people is to offer captions. Captions are a great option because they provide an alternative form of communication and allow more people to take part. Offering captions might mean providing captions on a screen for in-person audiences or offering them online for people who are participating remotely. 

Additionally, captions benefit many people beyond those who need them. For instance, it’s not uncommon for people to start to lose their hearing without realizing it. Also, so many other individuals use captions to help them comprehend information better when viewing in non-native languages or to improve their focus. Captions can therefore help to make online or virtual services more accessible to everyone, which is important as digital worship is still popular

The effort to improve access to religious services is commendable. Religious institutions don’t have the same obligation to create accessible places as other entities. Their commitment shows that investing in inclusivity doesn’t need to be about avoiding legal consequences. However, there are some ways that the ADA does still apply to religious organizations, so it’s important to understand the exemptions and their limitations.  

gathering of people with their hands in the air

How the ADA impacts religious organizations

Title III of the ADA applies to most businesses as it covers “places of public accommodation.” The list of such places is extensive. For example, restaurants, shops, hotels, private schools and many others must adhere to the law under this title.  

Unlike those organizations, even if a religious institution is open to the public and, therefore, a place of “public accommodation,” it will get a pass on many accessibility requirements.  

The issue can get a little tricky. What if a secular theater company rents church facilities for its afterschool program? What if the government uses a church as a polling place? In those cases, the ADA applies to the theater and the government, but the church still isn’t responsible for meeting the requirements.  

Also, when it comes to religious-sounding businesses, there’s no exemption from the ADA’s standards. For example, if a bookstore exclusively sells religious texts and has a name that reflects its business, that shop still must meet the ADA’s standards.  

While Title III may give religious organizations a pass, the ADA may apply to them in other ways. 

As employers, religious entities need to consider the ADA

Title I of the ADA creates workplace standards to accommodate people with disabilities. This title does, in fact, apply to religious institutions. If a religious organization has more than 15 employees, they need to ensure they’re meeting the letter of the law.  

Notably, this does not apply to people who perform religious functions for the organization. The “ministerial exemption” has its basis in the First Amendment of the US Constitution, which ensures the right to religious freedom. As a result, a church must adhere to Title I when it comes to its accountant, custodian or other roles, but not the pastor. In practice, this might mean that a church would need to offer captions to an administrative employee who was Deaf but have no legal obligation to provide them to their minister. Still, as the above examples demonstrate, promoting inclusivity can and should be a priority, even without legal requirements. 

How to provide greater access to your community members now

Religious and cultural institutions – both private and public – worldwide are now turning to Verbit for convenient and efficient accessibility solutions to help them connect more with their community members. 

Contact us to learn more about how our captioning, transcription and audio description solutions can help make your services, events and meetings – both in-person and online – more inclusive. Verbit’s services can be set up easily, scheduled on daily, weekly or one-off cadences, and work automatically to meet your demands and make providing access easier than ever before.