July 17, 2020

Despite ADA exemption, Pittsburgh-area houses of worship highlight accessibility efforts — and remaining shortfalls

Meg St-Esprit
Photograph of a catholic priest delivering a sermon. He's inside a church in front of his congregation. In the background, a woman interprets his sermon in American Sign Language along with him.
Diana Saunders interprets the sermon of Father Michael Stumpf into American Sign Language during a July 5, 2020 service at St. Mary of The Mount Catholic Church on Mount Washington. (Photo by Heather Mull/Rtvsrece)

Podcast episode 3: Listen to this article's author discuss how local places of worship are approaching accessibility for people with disabilities.

Jump to audio transcript

A coalition of religious leaders successfully lobbied 30 years ago for places of worship to be exempt from the Americans with Disabilities Act [ADA]. Many local faith leaders have since worked to make practices and spaces welcoming for congregants of all abilities, but challenges to accessibility remain.

Despite the ADA’s effect on nearly all areas of public life, religious entities — including churches, synagogues, mosques, religious schools and daycares — are exempt from the ADA. Dozens of Catholic churches cited burdensome costs and religious freedom when lobbying for the exemption.

Three decades later, religious institutions remain exempt from meeting accessibility codes and certain employment standards. Despite the exemption, many congregations across the city are trying to be accessible with varying degrees of success.

Rtvsrece and Unabridged Press spoke with several local congregations about the accessibility measures they are trying to implement and the areas in which they could improve. The added complexity of the COVID-19 pandemic — which has forced many congregations online — has increased accessibility for some congregants. Though for many people with disabilities, particularly the poor and elderly, online services can be less accessible.

Islamic Center of Pittsburgh

Alaa Shalaby’s son, a 16-year old with Down syndrome, grew up attending the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh [ICP]. Children within the Muslim community who have disabilities are visible and included in the congregation, said Shalaby, a board member at ICP.

“There is no attempt to screen or shield or overprotect,” Shalaby said. “In the kinds of communities most of our members grew up in overseas, they are very family-oriented, almost tribal, you are just accepted.”

Board member Elaine Linn echoed Shalaby’s sentiment. In Egypt, many imams — who lead prayer — are blind, a trait that gives them a special skill in memorizing the holy books, she said. ICP provides the Quran in Braille in its library.

Head on photograph of Shalaby, an older man, with his arm around his sixteen year old son. They’re on the steps in front of the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh. Behind them are flowers and a brick building.

Alaa Shalaby, a board member of the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh, and his son Ramy await afternoon prayers in front of the ICP's building in Oakland. (Photo by Heather Mull/Rtvsrece)

The needs of congregants with disabilities are woven into the fabric of the ICP community, they said. Though Shalaby wishes the center was more physically accessible; the members do their best with what they have.

“We do have a ramp that gets people into the top floor, and they can attend the prayers,” but the congregation’s social hall is in the basement, only accessible by steps. “We’ve looked into an elevator, but there is concern the building may not be good to retrofit,” Shalaby said. He’s unsure of a solution.

When someone who uses a wheelchair needs to go downstairs, several congregants will carry the individual down the steps, Shalaby said. The solution can be awkward, humiliating and even unsafe.

Along with many congregations across the Pittsburgh region, ICP has been meeting virtually throughout the pandemic. The switch to online worship has presented challenges for the congregation as they adapt to technology they were not using before. But it has also leveled the playing field and provided equal access to services and the Imam.

Linn has enjoyed the benefits of greater access herself. Women typically worship behind men at a mosque, but the remote services have allowed her greater visibility.

“I can raise my hand with a question, and I am not in the back of the room. I have access to (the Imam),” Linn said.

Congregants without cars and those who struggle to get to the mosque have also been able to tune in to the virtual services. Muslim scholars have participated in discussions amid the pandemic and have engaged with the congregants, Linn said. “That is a silver lining,” Linn said.

Homewood African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church

Pastor Jonathon Counts and his wife are concerned with the accessibility of the Homewood African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. Founded in 1871, the centuries-old building has many limitations.

“We need an elevator or a chair lift so disabled persons can enjoy the fullness of what our church offers. We also need another ramp as well,” Counts said. “These projects will cost a lot of money, but that is on our vision board to work towards.”

Many houses of worship in the Pittsburgh area exist in buildings that predate the implementation of the ADA. The buildings already lacked the ramps, elevators, bathrooms and other features required in public venues following the act's passage.

While a 100-year-old church might be completely inaccessible to someone who uses a wheelchair, once the church decides to upgrade any part of the space, 20% of the renovation budget must go toward improving physical accessibility.

Religious entities that choose to undergo renovations are not exempt from the ADA’s accessibility guidelines [ADAAG], or building code, said Bruce Pollock, an architect at RSSC Architecture. The Pittsburgh-based firm specializes in renovating houses of worship.

While a 100-year-old church might be completely inaccessible to someone who uses a wheelchair, once the church decides to upgrade any part of the space, 20% of the renovation budget must go toward improving physical accessibility.

Building owners have discretion in choosing what physical accessibility measures will make up 20% of the budget, according to Pollock. The owners must continue to work toward complying with the code, he said.

“Some get to a point where they’ve done everything but get an elevator in the building, but that would be 40% of their budget, so they will just install the shaft,” Pollock shared. “Next time they renovate, maybe they will get the actual elevator.”

Despite limited funds, Homewood AME Zion Church has committed to paying for ACCESS, Allegheny County’s door-to-door paratransit service, to enable some of their members with disabilities to attend regularly. The Counts also reserve space near the front of the sanctuary for congregants who use wheelchairs to help them feel included rather than relegated to the rear of the sanctuary.

Photograph of an older Black man in motorized wheelchair going up a ramp into the back of a church. A younger Black woman walks beside him, helping him inside.

Philip Russell and caretaker Alisa Martin use the wheelchair ramp on the side of the building to enter Homewood AME Zion Church on March 1, 2020. (Photo by Kimberly Rowen/Rtvsrece)

The church has been working to accommodate congregants with social and emotional disabilities. Counts, along with several parents, have created a sensory room so all families can attend events.

Counts hopes that children “can have a safe space to play as well as work through their triggers.”

Like ICP, the pandemic changed the church’s operations quickly. Counts has created a YouTube channel for the church, hosted Zoom prayer meetings and implemented socially distant visits with congregants. The church is working on safety plans to resume in-person meetings by the end of the summer, but is not yet sure whether that will be possible.

Victory Family Church

Victory Family Church in Cranberry Township has become a destination for Christian families with disabilities who are seeking a place to worship. The megachurch, which bought land to build the place of worship rather than converting an existing building, was subject to ADAAG guidelines. The space is physically accessible to current standards.

The church also has a special needs ministry called Endless Possibilities that has become well-known within disability circles. Tanya Riggs, who heads the program, has had families from Ohio and other places an hour away travel to attend the ministry’s services.

“I do not ever recall a time we have turned a child away,” Riggs said.

Before a child with disabilities attends a service at Victory Family Church, their parent or caregiver completes an application regarding how the church can best minister to the child's needs. Parents and guardians must sign up for the service about three days in advance to ensure enough volunteers are present on Sundays.

Some families said the need to R.S.V.P. for the Endless Possibilities service is difficult to do.

“With all of our kids’ needs, I do not have the mental capacity to plan that far ahead,” one parent said.

Riggs said she hopes Victory can continue to adapt to the changing needs of the community.

Through the Endless Possibilities program, many families who have children with disabilities have been able to attend church together for the first time, Riggs said. The church has a dedicated space for children who cannot be integrated into a typical Sunday school classroom, as well as a one-on-one aide program for children who can attend a classroom with support. Victory also offers a SuperMoms support group and strives to have a volunteer with a medical background on hand for congregants with complex medical needs.

St Mary of the Mount

Blind and deaf congregants may experience difficulties fully participating in worship. But Karen Shepherd, coordinator of St. Mary of the Mount’s deaf ministry, works with her team to be inclusive.

Sitting atop Mount Washington, St. Mary of the Mount is home to Pittsburgh’s Deaf Choir and the Deaf Council for the Diocese of Pittsburgh. The church, founded in 1897, offers Mass every Sunday in American Sign Language [ASL] and has deaf congregants who serve as ministers at Mass, Shepherd said.

“We have a Deaf Response Leader who leads the prayers and responses of the congregation so that our Deaf members are participating in the Mass,” Shepherd said. “In addition, we have a Deaf Choir that signs the songs that are being sung by the cantor or choir.”

Photograph of a woman standing outside a large brick church.

Karen Shepherd, a retired school teacher, has been leading the deaf choir and attending services at St. Mary of the Mount for the past seven years. (Photo by Heather Mull/Rtvsrece)

COVID-19 has changed the way St. Mary of the Mount provides access to worshippers. The church’s website offers links to interpreted services at other parishes that members have found useful, but it doesn’t have the technology on hand to do online interpretation consistently.

“The resources on our website...are only available for those members of our deaf community who have the technology resources at home to access them,” Shepherd said. “Even those who have internet access and a device on which to view the videos have not had the IT support of their children or grandchildren who advise them and help them navigate the world of streaming.”

The church has recently begun to load the sermon podcast to a voicemail so that people with landlines only can call in and listen. Yet the podcast doesn't help the deaf community. Transcriptions aren't available.

‘Where the whole family fits in’

Even when houses of worship work to accomodate people with disabilities, some individuals are still left out.

Aimee and Steve Robeson of Butler County attended a special needs program for their 10-year old son, Christian, for several years. Christian has multiple medical and cognitive disabilities, and the program provided an hour of respite for his parents each week.

As his needs have evolved, it’s been more difficult for Aimee and Steve to feel confident leaving Christian in a church setting. Aimee is considering switching to a local church that is smaller and will provide Christian with a one-on-one aide. Sunday school classrooms can be too stimulating for him.

The family thinks they have found a new place to worship together, a church that was suggested by a teacher at Christian’s school who knows him and his needs well. They’ve also begun to meet with a small group of parents for Bible study and have felt encouraged.

Congregations may not be able to accomodate all disabilities and unique needs, Aimee said. But open lines of communication and a willingness to adapt are key.

“Even though the other kids are ‘normal,’ they still interact with Christian and like being with him,” Aimee said.

That sense of acceptance and friendship for Christian is what the family is craving — sometimes even over a highly-formulated program.

Congregations may not be able to accomodate all disabilities and unique needs, Aimee said. But open lines of communication and a willingness to adapt are key.

“We haven’t honestly been to church in a year, between [Christian’s] changing needs and the pandemic,” Aimee said. “A lot of it, too, is finding a place where the whole family fits in, and that’s the hardest part.”

Meg St-Esprit is a freelance journalist based in Bellevue. She can be reached at megstesprit@gmail.com or on Twitter @megstesprit.

A note from this story’s adviser:

Within the realm of the human spirit, we all strive for unconditional acceptance and belonging. It is when an apparent disability becomes a piece of that human that challenges appear and can present themselves as potential problems. A number of people have difficulties asking others for any kind of help or assistance. And, when we physically and emotionally can be present, where all potential barriers and challenges have been fully thought out and overcome beforehand, that is when we can successfully move forward in faith that we are all accessible, accepted and welcome without question and we do belong.

—Brian Rutherford, accessibility advocate and audio description coordinator


Jennifer Szweda Jordan (00:03):
Can people with disabilities join able-bodied worshipers at their chosen faith communities? That's what reporter Meg St-Esprit set out to learn from Pittsburgh area religious leaders and families. I'm Jennifer Szweda Jordan with Unabridged Press. Meg joins me today for this episode of ADA at 30: Accessibility in Pittsburgh. This is a companion podcast, to our reporting collaboration with Rtvsrece, found at adapittsburgh.com. You'll find Meg's full report there and lots of other great reporting and video content.
Jennifer Szweda Jordan (00:38):
Hi, Meg.
Meg St-Esprit (00:39):
Jennifer Szweda Jordan (00:39):
What was it like for you to report this story, as a person of faith?
Meg St-Esprit (00:45):
It was really interesting because as an able-bodied person without any disabilities, it wasn't something I think I had thought about much. We do have children with special needs, but not so much from an accessibility standpoint had we had to consider our house of worship. As I began to talk to different families, some who were limited from worship because of disability, others who felt very included in their congregations, it really opened up for me a whole other facet to faith that I really hadn't thought about as much as I probably should have.
Meg St-Esprit (01:25):
It was really interesting to talk to the different congregations in a variety of different belief systems to see how they work to include members with disability and the areas that they all feel that they could improve.
Jennifer Szweda Jordan (01:39):
Do you want to maybe provide just a little bit of a synopsis of what you went for and what you came up with?
Meg St-Esprit (01:46):
Sure. So I set out to look at a diverse variety of churches, synagogues, mosques, et cetera, across the Pittsburgh area. I wanted to make sure that we talked to congregations from all backgrounds. I found that all of them have a desire to be inclusive, but they don't always necessarily have A, either the resources, financially, as far as building accessibility, or they don't always have quite the understanding of what is needed.
Meg St-Esprit (02:16):
I talked to families who access these programs, as well as the programs themselves. And even some of the families I spoke to acknowledge that these houses of worship are trying, clearly their heart is in the right place, but with such a wide range of disability and needs it's really hard to hit every single need that could arise. So some families still feel left out, even when these houses of worship are making an effort. So it's really an evolving, complicated topic.
Jennifer Szweda Jordan (02:51):
And like you say, what were some of the disabilities you were looking at? Was it all physical?
Meg St-Esprit (02:56):
No, I definitely looked at a wide range. We interviewed a fabulous AME Zion church in Homewood that is doing a lot for children that have sensory needs, on the autism spectrum, different things like that. And then it was very interesting because they also have a large segment of their congregation that is elderly. So they were able to talk about the fabulous things they're doing as far as social and emotional needs, but the fact that their very old building is hard to make accessible for their elderly population. So they kind of had some things on both ends of the scale that they were, things they want to improve and things that they're really proud of.
Meg St-Esprit (03:37):
I talked to a family whose child has multiple cognitive and physical disabilities, about how hard it really is just to find, they're a Christian family, the perfect program for them. They have moved around to a couple of different congregations, and now, they haven't actually been to church in almost a year, just because of the difficulty of it. So that was very eye-opening. And they did acknowledge that it's not for lack of programs trying to accommodate them, it's just their child's needs are very unique.
Meg St-Esprit (04:10):
I also talked to the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh. I talked to a parent in the congregation whose child has Down syndrome, and they had a really unique view on how in the immigrant population that makes up the Islamic population of Pittsburgh, disabilities are viewed very differently in some of the small villages and other countries where their congregants come from. So rather than having separate programs, there's a much more, they feel, inclusive atmosphere to the mosques, where everyone is just come as they are, and they're accepted and their needs are woven into the daily activities.
Jennifer Szweda Jordan (04:53):
Yeah. That's so interesting because there are multiple prayer times. I mean, I don't know, as a Catholic, I think of church as the once a week thing, or maybe some of us go daily. But that coming and going is really, as part of a community of faith, is a really neat opportunity to have multiple types of opportunities to provide accessibility.
Meg St-Esprit (05:18):
Right. And you know, that was one thing that the pandemic kind of added to every congregation I spoke to, it was an added layer of accessibility. People who can't necessarily get there either because they're immunocompromised. So I mean, even without a pandemic, many families or individuals with disabilities are avoiding congregant worship through the winter months because of the flu season and things like that, or there's transportation issues.
Meg St-Esprit (05:47):
So a lot of the congregations going online really improved accessibility for this season. And many of the congregations also hope to be able to continue online access, even when they're able to meet back in person again, just because it did allow people to connect who maybe couldn't otherwise.
Jennifer Szweda Jordan (06:07):
Yeah. I've found that ... I know you know that I work with Emmaus Community of Pittsburgh as a direct support provider, and have really enjoyed attending Mass with them sometimes online. That's something because of transportation and everything, we don't always do together. Like maybe once a year, we go to Mass together as a community, but it's a neat opportunity. I've been saying my new favorite place of worship is my living room with a cup of tea. A little irreverent, but I mean why would God not want me to sit around with a cup of tea and feel at home?
Meg St-Esprit (06:43):
Well, absolutely. And you know, we have four kids, the oldest is eight, the youngest is almost two. I mean, getting to church on a weekend, we go to Allegheny Center Alliance on the North Side, which is an amazing church that I think has really great accessibility options, but just the logistics of getting our family there is exhausting. So it is kind of nice to just be like, "Let's turn on Pastor Alan and Pastor Rock and sit here in our pajamas."
Meg St-Esprit (07:09):
But I really miss, more than the congregant worship on Sundays, I miss the small groups and the brunches and that kind of connection stuff. I think that's what a lot of people I spoke to are missing also. It's very hard for the disabled community, which is higher risk during the pandemic…. as some of the people I've talked to have said. They're missing out on those smaller connections, aside from the large body worship.
Jennifer Szweda Jordan (07:34):
You and I had talked about this, I think early on, but I was so stunned when I learned, I think in the last year or so, that Christians led by a Catholic lawyer got houses of worship exempted from the Americans with Disabilities Act. The reasoning was, I believe, there's the church and state separation, like we don't have to do this. And there was the claim of costs, which may have been a reality, you know? And it is a reality, right? But it's still ... I find it just kind of an embarrassment of my faith, that anybody would argue against accessibility, which I think is at the core of faith, community and accessibility. I don't know. Were you familiar with that before you started reporting?
Meg St-Esprit (08:23):
I knew that they were exempt, but I wasn't sure exactly what it meant. When I dug into it, it is really complicated because there's parts of the ADA that cover physical accessibility, there's parts that cover employment. It really gets into some muddy waters because there's still building code.
Meg St-Esprit (08:41):
I talked to an architect who focuses on houses of worship in the Pittsburgh area and he helped me understand every time a church, or place, house of worship does any type of remodeling, then they have to use 20% of their budget to update according to the accessibility guidelines that fall under the building code. So a lot of the houses of worship are becoming slightly more accessible, but it also, it has some, I don't want to call them loopholes, but they might be able to build an elevator shaft, but they don't have to put an elevator in it.
Jennifer Szweda Jordan (09:18):
Meg St-Esprit (09:19):
But he did also say, which I thought was encouraging, that most of their clients truly want to be accessible. It's just trying to figure out ... Most, many, houses of worship have a small budget. Pittsburgh has a very, very high percentage of very old buildings that congregations are meeting in, and so unless you're building a new building from the ground up, it's definitely tricky. I know our church has a stair lift that is a little bit rickety, but it's hard to fit that into a building that's a hundred plus years old. I know many places are struggling with that.
Meg St-Esprit (9:55):
The Islamic Center of Pittsburgh talked to me about how to access their lower level, they'd had consultation on it and it's difficult. So yeah, I think it's sad, and as you said, seems the antithesis of faith, to try to get exempt from it. But I also think it's encouraging that even when they're exempt, congregations want to be accessible anyways, so that's why I feel like it is a little bit muddy.
Jennifer Szweda Jordan (10:18):
Yeah. And we kind of touched on the special needs that aren't physical disabilities. In my church, there is a boy who's very vocal throughout mass and he and siblings walk around a lot. I think a lot about how to address that. I don't know the answers. As Catholics, we stand up and sit down a lot, and I've read that that is confusing to a kid. Or, you know, say, "Oh, we're standing up? We're going. Oh, no. We're sitting back down. Now we're kneeling. What are we doing?" Those gestures are confusing.
Meg St-Esprit (11:00):
Absolutely. I've thought about that as well. Our church has a children's ministry that is separate from the main service, as a lot of Protestant churches do. They have a buddy program, sort of like a one-on-one program for children with special needs or disability, which works in most cases. But I know that there's some children that are in the service with their parents because either they're not comfortable or it doesn't work for them.
Meg St-Esprit (11:28):
It is just so complicated to think about how do you serve everyone in a congregate space and make sure that everyone's needs are met? It could be really beautiful if we could find a way to incorporate it. I think that sometimes where our own selfish desires can kind of get in the way of a collectivist approach to the body of worship.
Jennifer Szweda Jordan (11:51):
I mean, a lot of us just want to get in and get out, right? We don't have time for figuring out what's going to work for this person, right? Just like check ... So that's, yeah, what I find really unfortunate, what I witness. I mean, I'm glad he's there, but I just think we could do better by him.
Meg St-Esprit (12:09):
I hear you.
Jennifer Szweda Jordan (12:10):
So I think this is a good conversation. Did you want to add anything else or talk about anything else? People can read the story to find out more about what you uncovered.
Meg St-Esprit (12:20):
Just remember that congregation literally means everyone together, a body of believers, congregant worship, and how you can meet every variety of needs. The other thing I think that families are really willing to talk about and many of them, and there's families that are in this story and families that are not that I spoke to that decided not to be involved, all of them said, or many of them said anyway, I shouldn't say all, nobody asked them, "What do you need specifically?"
Meg St-Esprit (12:51):
A couple of families said we just stopped showing up and no one checked to see why. So I think you might feel awkward about it, but if you notice someone's not there, just ask them why. And maybe there's a small thing you can do, or maybe there's a big overhaul that needs done so that it can be accessible for them.
Jennifer Szweda Jordan (13:10):
Yeah. Thank you.
Meg St-Esprit (13:12):
No problem.
Jennifer Szweda Jordan (13:13):
You can read Meg St-Esprit's reporting on accessibility and Pittsburgh houses of worship at adapittsburgh.com. Published in collaboration with Rtvsrece. And we hope you'll continue listening to this series wherever you're hearing your podcasts. We have a companion episode to our conversation about houses of worship in which we talk to people with disabilities about their personal spiritual journeys. I'm Jennifer Szweda Jordan from Unabridged Press. This program's production received assistance from the Center for Media Innovation at Point Park University, and is supported by the FISA Foundation. Thanks for listening.