sealPurdue News

December 1998

Church accessibility is important for rural areas

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- Having a disability in a rural community presents many special challenges. Too often, one problem is being shut out of church.

And in rural areas, being shut out of church means much more than missing Sunday morning services. It also can mean being shut out of the community.

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"In 1992 we conducted a survey of 150 farmers with spinal cord injuries to see what their needs were," says Barry Delks, director of Purdue University's Breaking New Ground Resource Center. "We discovered that church accessibility was the top community accessibility concern of farmers with disabilities."

Delks points out that churches play a special role in rural communities, where they often are used for activities such as voting, or for community meetings for groups such as Boy Scouts, Farm Bureau or Cooperative Extension Service.

The mission of Purdue's Breaking New Ground Resource Center is to assist farmers who have been disabled. Agriculture is the major industry in many rural communities, and it has significant risks. According to Delks, 19 percent of active farm operators are no longer able to perform some essential task because of a disability. "Agriculture is one of the nation's most hazardous occupations, and it has one of the highest disabling rates," he says.

"We've responded to the needs of people with disabilities in rural communities in several ways. We've sent out more than 800 kits to rural businesses to help them improve accessibility. We've worked with county Extension offices and fairgrounds to make them more accessible. Now, in working with churches, we're responding to another need."

Farmers and others in rural areas who are disabled face a lack of options, Delks explains. Although there's little concern if a city church isn't accessible -- a person with a disability can just choose to go to a different church -- in a rural community with just one or two churches, this is a much larger problem.

Ed Bell, a farmer in Hagerstown, Ind., is also a consultant for the Southern Indiana Center for Independent Living for Breaking New Ground, and he knows firsthand that country churches present special problems for people with disabilities. Bell, who is the son of a preacher, uses a wheelchair himself, and he works closely with the Purdue Breaking New Ground Resource Center to improve church accessibility.

"A lot of the old country churches were built with steps going up to the foyer, and once you are in there, there are steps leading up to the sanctuary and steps leading down to the basement," Bell says. "Often times the basement is where the church has the fellowship hall, so it is just as important to get there as it is to get into the sanctuary."

According to Bell, the original church members weren't uncaring about people with disabilities. "In the late 1800s when a lot of these churches were built, people like me didn't survive the type of injury that I have. Plus there was no reason to accommodate people with severe disabilities."

Bell suggests that congregations that are struggling with the issue should look at it from a different perspective. "Churches can look at the modifications as a mission project. They don't need to get on a plane or a boat to reach out to people. They can reach new people right here in the cornfields of the Midwest," he says. "One thing I always tell people: In the church community you often hear people referred to as 'shut-ins,' but if people with disabilities aren't able to attend your church, they're not shut-ins, they're shut out."

Still, Bell concedes that the issue can be difficult for many small churches. "It's often the case that these churches are maintained by a small group of elderly people, and they view modifications to assist people who are disabled as an overwhelming undertaking."

According to Delks, holding down costs is a high priority for many rural churches looking to solve accessibility problems. "If we're talking about a church with 50 people who regularly attend, we aren't talking about a multimillion dollar budget," he says.

Jennifer Byerly, agricultural safety and health specialist at Purdue, says that churches can look for low-cost methods to deal with accessibility issues. "For example, if you can't invest in large-print hymnals, you could have a basket of magnifying glasses available near the door. Some churches have done this and it works quite well. Another option could be to enlarge some frequently used hymns on a photocopier.

"Other examples might be, instead of building two accessible bathrooms, you could have one unisex accessible bathroom. Or, instead of installing a special water fountain that is accessible for someone in a wheelchair, you could just install a paper cup dispenser next to the water fountain."

According to Ned Stoller, a Purdue rural assistive technology specialist, one obstacle is overcoming church tradition. "Just because you always have had the adult Sunday school class on the second floor doesn't mean that you have to continue to have it there," he says. "People don't like change, and there will be some who want the class to stay where it is because that's where it was when their grandfather first built the church. So it's not as easy as it sounds, but the solutions are there if you look for them."

A related issue is changing the appearance of the church. Stoller says that there are creative ways around this, too. "Instead of adding a ramp to the front of the church, they can build a dirt hill and put a winding sidewalk on it. When it's finished with landscaping, it is quite attractive and doesn't diminish the traditional appearance of the church."

Although many people first think of accessibility issues in terms of severe disabilities such as spinal injuries, blindness or deafness, Delks points out that making the church more accessible can benefit a broad spectrum of people who attend activities there. "There are a number of people with mobility impairments, such as hip replacements or heart patients, who appreciate not having to climb steps," he says. "Even young parents pushing a baby stroller find it a benefit. A parent who is dealing with small kids will appreciate wider restroom stalls, which are also wheelchair accessible.

Breaking New Ground is hosting a series of workshops around Indiana on improving the accessibility of rural churches.

Since it began in 1979, the Breaking New Ground Resource Center has become internationally recognized as a primary source for information and resources on rehabilitation technology for people working in agriculture. The center supports families in Indiana who have been affected by disabilities caused by injury or illness. The center's outreach program is a part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's AgrAbility Program, which supports similar programs in 20 states.

More information about Breaking New Ground programs is available by calling (800) 825-4264.

Sources: Barry Delks, (765) 494-1221; e-mail,

Ed Bell, (765) 489-5753; e-mail,

Jennifer Byerly, (765) 494-5013; e-mail,

Ned Stoller, (765) 494-5088; e-mail,

Writer: Steve Tally, (765) 494-9809;

Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; e-mail,

Photo Caption:
Ed Bell, a farmer and a consultant for Purdue University's Breaking New Ground Program, inspects the changes made to Sugar Group Community Church in Greens Fork, Ind. The Breaking New Ground program is helping rural churches improve their accessibility for farmers and others with disabilities. The Purdue program has found that churches are an essential part of community life in rural areas. (Purdue Agricultural Communications photo.)
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