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Last Updated: Saturday, 18 September, 2004, 23:44 GMT 00:44 UK
Religion gears up for disability law
Geoff Adams-Spink
BBC News Online disability affairs reporter

New laws about to take effect mean places of worship will be obliged to ensure that disabled people have reasonable access.

Shops, offices and public buildings will also be affected by the changes but how prepared are the religious services?

Photo of Canterbury Cathedral
Ancient churches pose a particular challenge for improving access
"We're like a business with seventeen thousand outlets - there's a lot of work to do," said Stephen Bowler of the Church of England's Council for the Care of Churches.

The Anglican Church is faced with a particular challenge because 13,000 of its buildings are ancient, most of them listed.

According to Mr Bowler, press speculation has led to fears among some congregations that their church will have to close if it doesn't comply with the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) - the final phase of which comes into effect on 1 October.

"You hear these horror stories in the press that a particular church must close - but I think it's axiomatic that if a church must close, it mustn't close," he said.

What the law will do is to ask people to consider making religious services accessible to disabled people as a matter of course - it is not a cast iron rule that every church, mosque, synagogue or temple has to have a wheelchair ramp.

Through the Roof is a multi-denominational christian charity which provides advice on making all religions accessible to people with disabilities.

Its director, Paul Dicken, says there are four steps that any religious institution should follow:

  • Have written material available in large print.
  • Install an induction loop - with 2.5m hearing aid users in the UK, there will almost certainly be some in any congregation.
  • Have a plan about how to make adjustments for anyone with impaired mobility - this might include alternative entrances, ramps, handrails and, if all else fails, meeting in an alternative venue.
  • Provide training for members of the congregation and the leadership team about how to be more inclusive of disabled people.

"People just need to be more creative," Mr Dicken told BBC News Online.

"If your church is completely inaccessible and you have wheelchair users who want to take part in the service, just have one Sunday in the month when everyone moves to a local school or some other accessible building."

Through the Roof says it has sent out more than 25,000 copies of its leaflet on how to prepare for the DDA - ample evidence that a lot work is being done to prepare.

"It's my guess that only about half of the UK's christian churches will be ready for 1 October, but I'd say it's on most people's radar," said Mr Dicken.

The Methodist Church has 6,200 properties around the UK and its head of property, Alan Pimlott, describes preparing for the DDA as a 'major enterprise'.

Photo of Pickering Methodist Church - photograph supplied by Bramhall Blenkharn Architects Ltd
Several hundred Methodist churches have already had been improved
"Hundreds of our churches have applied for alterations to be approved," he said.

"For four or five years now we've been saying, 'do what you can, as soon as you can, anticipate the need, don't wait'."

While churches have had to contend with modernising their ageing property portfolios, faiths which arrived in the UK relatively recently have been able to reap the rewards of using modern buildings which comply with the regulations on disability access.

Even so, the recently-built Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh sikh temple in Southall, West London, has an impressive catalogue of accessibility features.

The main entrance is ramped and the internal lift is for the sole use of elderly and disabled people.

"When we construct a gurdwara, it's a tradition to keep the cost as low as possible," explained Ajit Singh, who shows visitors around the temple.

"This is why we want able-bodied people to use the stairs whenever possible and the entrance to our lift is slightly concealed to deter everyone from using it."

It was also decided to abandon the use of the traditional Indian 'sardan' - a low barrier about one brick high which normally separates rooms - in order to provide a flat route throughout the temple.

Photo of woman praying in gurwara temple
The sunken floor allows people to pray at 'floor level'
The smaller of the two prayer halls is fitted with an induction loop, and this has been so successful that the vast, main prayer hall is now to be fitted with one.

A ramp in the main prayer hall leads down to a sunken floor which contains a few chairs and space to accommodate wheelchairs.

"It's an idea that came from disabled people themselves," said Mr Singh.

"They wanted to be able to sit at the same height as everyone else, so when you sit on a chair in this area you're actually at the level of the main floor where everyone else kneels."

Mosques - especially the newer, purpose-built ones, have also been getting the message when it comes to improving access.

"The law tells mosques to do what is reasonable - so not every mosque has to have a lift, it depends on its size," said Seghir Alam, a lawyer who is also a disability rights commissioner.

"A small mosque in a side street, in a terraced house, would not have the same obligation as the Central Mosque in London."

Mr Alam says that Islam allows for discretion to be used in religious practice so that elderly and disabled people can sit on chairs in the mosque and people who are unwell do not have to fast.

"Certain mosques are very pro-active, whereas others may need to be more aware."

"In fact mosques should be a place for raising awareness about disability - it's a good way of getting the message to the grass roots."

For anyone still unsure as to the best course of action, Stephen Bowler has some straightforward advice.

"You should ask people what they feel most comfortable with and then provide it in a way which doesn't draw attention to them," he said.

"A lot can be done by simply taking account of one's fellow human beings."

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