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I visited a church recently. They worship in a beautiful, newly renovated facility. Every aspect of the facility meets code for accessibility: all on one level, pew cutouts, wide doorways, sloped surfaces, accessible parking spaces, accessible restrooms.

Unfortunately, code doesn’t always square with the reality of living with a disability.

To enter those beautiful new accessible bathrooms one has to open a heavy door, mounted with an aggressive door closer, turn left or right to go to the men’s or women’s rooms, proceed down a short hallway, then open a second door into the bathroom. No problem for someone who can walk and who is strong enough to pull against that aggressive door closer. It all meets code for accessibility.

One of the people I was with when I visited that church uses a wheelchair. She cherishes her independence. She would not tell you that she is wheelchair bound, but she would tell you that her wheelchair frees her to be much more independent than she could be without it. But that aggressive door closer, the short hallway, the tight turns into the bathrooms were too much for her to do on her own. They meet code, but they are not accessible.

Building committees composed of able-bodied people have a hard time looking at blueprints and discerning whether the building will be truly accessible. The lesson: make sure that a person with a mobility impairment is on the building planning team with your church’s next construction project. And don’t let that person get isolated from the rest of the team, even if she tells you something different from the architect.

The architect is the expert on meeting code. The person living with a disability is the expert on accessibility. She lives with the wise and poor decisions of architects every day.

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