|Imagine a world where no barriers exist. All people are free to
move about as they wish, hindered neither by physical constraints nor restraining
attitudes. Understanding is high, and rising. Ignorance-born discrimination is at an
all-time low. Sound like a slice of heaven on earth?
To any one of more than 54 million
Americans dealing with disability, its a dream waiting to come true.
When PTS asked the Princeton-based architectural firm of Ford Farewell Mills Gatsch to
complete an audit of Seminary buildings, it was with the hope of receiving a barrier-free
master plan that would provide a pathway toward complete campus-wide accessibility for
those challenged by mobility and communication disabilities. The 1997 audit report seeks
to comply with the guidelines of the Americans
with Disabilities Act (ADA), 1990 federal legislation aimed at ensuring that people
with disabilities are afforded the same access to public accommodations as are those
without physical, sensory, and/or mental disadvantages.
According to David Poinsett, PTSs director of facilities, the audit report is a
starting point to carry the Seminary into the future. "The plan gives us enough to do
for today, and the decade," he says. "Its an integral part of upgrading
and planning for the physical facility." Despite the fact that the ADA has only
limited application to religious institutions, Poinsett cites the existence of annual
budgeted capital improvements earmarked for "ADA Handicap Upgrade" as an
important measure of the Seminarys commitment to becoming a welcoming place for all.
Though the ADA audit does provide a step-by-step design, it doesnt preclude
need-based reordering or implementation of solutions necessitated by unforeseen
circumstances. For example, PTS Ph.D. candidate Rolf Jacobson and his wife, Amy, lived in
one of two one-bedroom apartments in Tennent Hall that were upgraded in 1982 to provide
handicap accessibility in accord with specifications of that time. When the Jacobsons were
expecting their first child this year, a two-bedroom Tennent Hall apartment was refitted
to current ADA guidelines. Rolf, an ordained Lutheran pastor and Old Testament scholar who
uses a wheelchair, provided input during several stages of the apartments
renovation. He appreciates the progress. He also points out the many places on campus
where accessibility is still problematic. "You can get to the first floor, where the
offices are," Jacobson says of Hodge Hall, built in 1893. "But anything in the
basement [duplicating department, social activities] is out. Its hard to retrofit
"Ask the experts," says Dr. Ginny Thornburgh, vice president of the National Organization on Disability (NOD) and director of
NODs Religion and Disability Program, referring to those who will use the
facilities. "Theyre the ones who really know!" A PTS trustee and member of
the boards Grounds and Buildings Committee, Thornburgh emphasizes the importance of
learning about disabilities from the perspectives of those who live with them on a daily
basis, and hopes for an increased representation of theological students, professors, and
staff, whose lives are affected by some type of disability. "The best instructors [on
disabilities] in our seminaries are people with disabilities," she explains.
Additional exposure and education improves others comfort levels with those
perceived as somehow different, resulting in what Thornburgh calls the "rubber
band" effect: when our boundaries are stretched to include people and situations we
havent before been exposed to, our outlooks and worldviews are expanded as well.
If attitude isnt everything, its surely a large part of any possible
solution. Removing physical barriers is the relatively simple part, or at least the part
more easily done. Breaking down the barricades of misunderstanding, stigma, and discomfort
requires an ongoing, concentrated effort. "Its easier to fix your congregation
architecturally," says Thornburgh, "than to change hearts and mindshow we
love, think, and act." Though we like to think of ourselves as having built a
progressive, inclusive society, that image isnt always borne out in reality.
Ideally, attitude and architecture can be wedded to work together. The Seminarys
commitment to making PTS an accessible campus has resulted in many changes already. All
major building and renovation projects since the late 1980s have included up-to-date
compliance with ADA regulations, such as entrance ramps, handicap-accessible restrooms and
guest rooms, and Braille lettering in elevators. New undertakingssuch as Scheide
Hall and renovations to Miller Chapelare designed with accessibility built in.
Whenever feasible, individual needs are met on a case-by-case basis.
During a summer Wednesday night worship service, participants of this years
Institute of Theology (IOT) and members of the Seminary community got a chance to witness
firsthand the pairing of attitude and technology. V. Patrick Ellis, an artist, IOT leader,
and Ph.D. candidate in liturgical studies at Drew Seminary, envisioned a pulpit that is
handicap-accessible, built to accommodate the dimensions of a preacher with or without a
wheelchair. The news that Howard Rice would preach during the IOT caused Ellis both
excitement and concern. "We [didnt] know if he would want to use [the
pulpit]," Ellis explains, "or even if it would work." Yet Ellis believes
"the effort is more important than [whether] it works" perfectly the first time
around. The pulpit was designed and built.
And it worked. Rice beamed when he recalled the experience. "It was powerful. It
was the first time in 28 years that I preached from a pulpit; I almost lost it. The first
moment, I could not speak. I knew I had to say something about it. So I said, I
dont believe you have to preach from a pulpit. But its nice to have the
choice." His words were met by a few seconds of complete silence.
The applause that followed rocked the auditorium and affirmed Rices words,
assuring him that a lot of other folks think so, too.