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Summer/Fall 1999
Volume 4 Number 2

A Time to Break Down
and a Time to
Build Up

Striving for a barrier-free campus

By Elizabeth Terrill

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, it’s 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.accessible art 1.jpg (18043 bytes)

According to David Poinsett, PTS’s 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. "It’s 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 Seminary’s commitment to becoming a welcoming place for all.

Though the ADA audit does provide a step-by-step design, it doesn’t 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 apartment’s 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. It’s hard to retrofit old buildings."

"Ask the experts," says Dr. Ginny Thornburgh, vice president of the National Organization on Disability (NOD) and director of NOD’s Religion and Disability Program, referring to those who will use the facilities. "They’re the ones who really know!" A PTS trustee and member of the board’s 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 haven’t before been exposed to, our outlooks and worldviews are expanded as well.

If attitude isn’t everything, it’s 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. "It’s easier to fix your congregation architecturally," says Thornburgh, "than to change hearts and minds—how we love, think, and act." Though we like to think of ourselves as having built a progressive, inclusive society, that image isn’t always borne out in reality.

Ideally, attitude and architecture can be wedded to work together. The Seminary’s 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 undertakings—such as Scheide Hall and renovations to Miller Chapel—are 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 year’s 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 [didn’t] 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 don’t believe you have to preach from a pulpit. But it’s 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 Rice’s words, assuring him that a lot of other folks think so, too.

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