If your congregation is serious about providing access for members with disabilities, talk to them first, advises Ginny Thornburgh, director of the religion and disability program for the National Organization on Disability.

And if you really want to open your doors to everyone, consider that the range of disabilities extends far beyond conditions often categorized as "visible." Accommodating a child with Down syndrome or autism or an adult with severe mental retardation requires a different--and often more creative--response from that required for someone who needs a wheelchair or cane to maneuver, she said.

Thornburgh, 59, is a 30-year veteran of the struggle for rights for people with disabilities. She also is one of an increasing number of voices calling for full involvement of the physically and mentally impaired in religious communities--not just in worship.

"Permit me, this morning, to explore with you the concept of welcoming people with all types of disabilities into God's house," Thornburgh told a United Methodist congregation in Bethlehem, Pa., last month. "Not just by the addition of ramps, railings and automatic doors--although these are clearly wonderful--but by opening our hearts and minds to new possibilities."

Those possibilities include a Missouri parent's realization that her teenage son, who has Tourette's syndrome, made fewer outbursts in church when he was folding the bulletin into different shapes, Thornburgh said in an interview. Another member bought him an origami instruction book, and others gave him colorful paper--from which he made figures the congregation hung on an Advent tree in celebration of his creativity.

Opening the doors and minds of churches and synagogues is a matter not only of physical accommodation but of spiritual accommodation, said the Rev. David McAllister-Wilson, executive vice president of Wesley Theological Seminary in Northwest Washington. Wesley, like other seminaries across the country, has been making its campus more accessible to attract more students with disabilities and to serve as a model to the ministers it trains for pastoral leadership.

Last year, the National Organization for Disability began signing up congregations that "commit to welcoming people with disabilities and removing barriers of architecture, communication and attitude," said Thornburgh, who has worked with the group for a decade. More than 800 churches and synagogues, including 27 in the Washington region, have committed to the program--with a goal of "2,000 by the year 2000."

Architectural barriers include well-intentioned but poorly designed structural changes. "There are too many bad examples" of renovations that are intended to increase access but create even greater problems for users, Thornburgh said. Many wheelchair ramps are pitched too poorly, with no platform or other resting place at the door opening. In restrooms, grab bars are positioned too high or too low to be of use to a person in a wheelchair.

"What saddens me is that congregational leaders too often are reluctant to go to the experts, the people they are attempting to welcome," Thornburgh said.

In a recent case, a church decided to publish large-print bulletins for the visually impaired but did not ask those members of the church which type size would be best. The type they chose was large enough for some but too small for others, she said.

And don't ignore the children with disabilities by speaking only with their parents, said Thornburgh, who is married to former U.S. attorney general Richard Thornburgh and was "led to this ministry" through involvement with their son Peter, 39, who has mental retardation. "Sometimes children speak quite eloquently themselves," she said.

One congregation, McLean Bible Church, has one of the country's most respected programs for children with disabilities, Thornburgh said. The rapidly growing church, which this week began construction on a new facility on Route 7 near Tysons Corner, offers two special-needs Bible classes each Sunday morning.

Called the Beautiful Blessing Children's Ministry, the classes are designed for children who need one-on-one attention or "are medically fragile," said Diane Anderson, director of the church's nationally recognized access ministry program.

Most days, six to eight children with various mental and physical disabilities attend each class while their parents attend worship services in the sanctuary. Volunteer nurses assist the most severely disabled, including several children who receive nourishment through feeding tubes and one child who is deaf and blind and has a seizure disorder.

Other children are assigned a "beautiful buddy," a peer who reads stories to them, plays music or helps them with crafts, said Anderson, 33. Two of her sons--Christopher, 10, and Matthew, 7--have learning disabilities. Matthew and sisters Caroline, 9, and Stephanie, 5, often serve as buddies, and their father, Steve, helps in the classroom.

"It's a great privilege to do this ministry," she said. "The whole family is involved. It's a lot of fun."

The first phase of McLean Bible's new, $50 million complex, a total renovation of the old Wildlife Federation headquarters, should be finished and ready for occupancy by September, Anderson said. The 47-acre facility, with completion scheduled for 2003, "probably will be the most accessible place in Washington."

Most of the entryways will be "sensored," with doors that open automatically. The sanctuary stage will have a ramp and elevator and an "audio loop" for the hard of hearing. There also will be a "family restroom," a gender-free facility so that male caregivers can accompany females with disabilities and vice versa.

The most exciting change, Anderson said, will be the expansion of accessible Sunday school spaces. While the current program is limited to children, from newborn through high school, the new facility will accommodate young to middle-aged adults who are disabled, including those who are "profoundly mentally retarded" and usually have to stay at home.

Not all accommodations for people with disabilities need to be so extensive, or expensive, said Wesley's McAllister-Wilson. "It's critical for pastors [to know] it's not necessary to spend hundreds of thousand of dollars and completely gut the [sanctuary] to have a creative option to let others worship," he said. And not all structural changes have to look like a "monstrosity."

As part of a long-term plan for a fully accessible campus, Wesley last year began looking for ways to increase disability access inside the school's 200-seat chapel. Entry to the ground-level sanctuary is relatively easy, but anyone using a wheelchair or crutches cannot reach the stage level without difficulty, if at all, McAllister-Wilson said.

Wesley sought the help of the Washington-based Paralyzed Veterans of America, the technical consultants for disability access at the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta. Project architect Carol Peredo Lopez, working with architectural director Kim Beasley, avoided an unsightly ramp by designing a hidden lift next to the lectern.

Beasley estimated the total project cost, including structural adjustments and a custom-made, scissor-type lift, at $40,000 to $45,000.

McAllister-Wilson said Wesley has put the project on hold while the school considers a larger renovation project for the administrative office building, including the chapel. But he already has suggested adding a hidden lift to several United Methodist congregations that want to improve access for speakers and choir members.

When visiting churches, McAllister-Wilson said, he gets "a growing sense of welcoming and empowering" people with disabilities, not just accommodating them. But the religious community still has a long way to go.

"Churches change slower than all other institutions in society," he said.

CAPTION: At right, Jaclene Dull, 15, center, a volunteer "beautiful buddy," reads with Kelly Featherstone, 9, at McLean Bible Church. Kelly was born with cerebral palsy. Above, Diane Anderson, director of the church's access ministry, helps Kevin Fulcher, 4, act out a Bible lesson, "On the Road to Galilee."

In Some Instances, Religious Organizations Fall Under Disabilities Act

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 requires that most public and private institutions provide equal access and opportunities for people with disabilities. In general, these and other provisions do not apply to religious organizations.

But important exceptions exist, said Ginny Thornburgh, director of the religion and disability program for the National Organization on Disability. For example, any program that receives federal, state or county funds--such as a day-care center, hospital, college or social service agency--must comply with the law. And a church that leases space to an independent community theater group also is subject to the law.

Many religious groups voluntarily have chosen to follow access standards and guidelines. Thornburgh's organization, which assists congregations that want to improve disability access, offers publications and other resource information, including a list of denominational and interfaith offices on disability.

For details, write the National Organization on Disability at 910 16th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20006, or call 202-293-5960 or 202-293-5968 (TDD).

A state-by-state list of more than 800 congregations that have joined NOD's Accessible Congregations Campaign is available on the Web site at www.nod.org.

PLAN FOR WHEELCHAIR ACCESS TO A SANCTUARY STAGE

Architects at Paralyzed Veterans of America designed this lift for the chapel at Wesley Theological Seminary. They had drawn similar plans for a judge's bench and for the bimah of a synagogue.

Proposed additions

1. Controls

2. New gate

3. Wheelchair lift

4. New ramp

(This graphic was not available)