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Occupational therapist advises churches
on ways to be more accessible and inclusive

Lynn Swedberg is moving beyond applying her 32 years of experience as an occupational therapist to make her church, Manito United Methodist Church inclusive. 

Lynne Swedberg
Lynne Swedberg shows color-coded cards
her church uses to identify
foods contents for potluck meals.

She now shares ideas nationally as quarter-time disability consultant for the national United Methodist General Board of Global Ministries and chair of its Task Force on Disability Ministries.

Manito has large-print bulletins, a chair lift Lynn used when she broke her ankle, a remodeled bathroom, a signing choir, an assistive listening system and signs to clip on potluck dishes to note dietary issues and more.

There are more plans in the works locally through Manito’s Inclusivity Committee.  Lynn has picked up ideas from her years working with Home Health doing geriatric occupational therapy, until Medicare changes recently reduced the in-home programs.

As a consultant, she first learns about a church’s needs, priorities and financial restrictions, rather than starting with a checklist of ideas.  Usually interest in improving accessibility is sparked by limits of a beloved church member after an accident or illness.

“The percent of people with disabilities in churches is less than the percent in the population,” she said.  “Some question if God is punishing them, so psychological issues are a place to start.”

Ramps may be needed in the sanctuary as well as outside if people are to be lay readers or preach, Lynn noted.

“Disability ministry is about hospitality and intentional welcome,” she said. 

Lynn, who lived in Walla Walla and in Milwaukie, Ore., studied occupational therapy at the University of Puget Sound, and came  to Spokane in 1978 to be near her grandmother who had moved to Spokane from Creston.  After her grandmother died in 1997, Lynn went on several trips to Romania with Wheels for the World, a program of Joni and Friends, an international disability ministry.

While contemplating submitting a workshop proposal for a national occupational therapy conference in 2000 in Seattle, she heard the words “disability ministries” as a calling.

“I prefer ‘accessibility ministry’ or ‘inclusion ministries,’ because the point is to include people not label them,” said Lynn, whose focus is full participation in the faith community.

In fall 2010, she decided it was time to use her occupational therapy experience for churches as her primary ministry.

After nine years on the United Methodist Task Force on Disability Ministries, she said her consulting includes church consulting; resource sharing with a website, facebook and a newsletter, and setting up displays and leadingworkshops at United Methodist Annual Conference Meetings.

Doing full audits for churches or camps, her goal is to open the eyes of pastors, managers and leaders to see how people with different abilities might experience the building or grounds.

Manito’s Inclusivity Committee has a comprehensive overview, but takes one step at a time.  It is working on constructing a ramp and may some day have an elevator to improve access for people in wheel chairs, using walkers or with a temporary injury that limits access to the multi-split level building.  The ground-level fellowship hall is accessible. 

With several deaf or hard-of-hearing members at Manito, Lynn and 11 other members have learned to communicate sign language over 12 years.  The church employs an interpreter for all events, not just Sunday worship, so deaf members can serve on committees and participate in district events.

Bryan Branson, who is deaf, teaches a signed adult Sunday school class.  The church plans to add a portable microphone system so members can join in committee meetings and small groups.

Lynn encourages the regional conference to buy videos with captions, and the national church to make videos with captions.

The church’s signing choir enhances the worship, Lynn said, because signing flows like sacred dance.  When she had laryngitis this winter and couldn’t sing, she signed with the songs.

Another option some churches use is Computer Assisted Realtime Translation, which uses a court reporting system to project captions, not only for the hard-of-hearing but also helpful if a speaker has an accent or someone is not fluent in English. 

“Audio and visual communication technologies help more people participate,” she said.

Consulting with a Georgia church about building ramps to the door and fellowship hall, she learned its two members in wheel chairs have to sit up front.  She suggested cutting three feet off ends of two pews so they can sit by family and friends.

Lynn has also developed an accessibility checklist to help United Methodist Annual Conference annual meeting planners incorporate accommodations at campuses, convention centers or churches—such as ramps to speaker platforms, street-level entry, vans or golf carts.  Another tool advises speakers, for example, not to talk while writing on a board, so lip readers can follow.  Churches began holding conferences at hotels and conference centers to be accessible.

At a National Camp and Retreat Leaders Gathering, she helped outdoor ministries leaders learn to expand inclusion at camps. 

While there are many accessibility audits, Lynn said there are few resources for faith-based camps.  She will put some energy there, taking some ideas for the outdoor setting from national parks:  Do camps have level, designated parking spaces for people in wheel chairs? Do they have tactile maps with raised letters?

Lynn has walked around Lazy F Camp in Ellensburg and Twinlow in Idaho, helping the managers begin to see with different eyes.

She said camps may be a setting to include children who are separated in school and want to be with typical peers at camp.  Children living with a common illness may benefit from a special camp with others facing the same struggles.  For example, a muscular dystrophy camp uses Twinlow.

“Inclusion exposes us to people who are struggling,” she said. 

Lynn, who also connects with the World Council of Churches Ecumenical Disability Advocates Network and with the National Council of Churches Committee on Disabilities, said language is important in helping congregations understand without differentiating to the point of exclusion. 

Inclusion takes a deliberate decision, case by case, church by church, she said.  There are also sensitivities based on traditions, such as providing gluten-free bread or wafers for communion.

For Manito potlucks, Lynn developed potluck alert markers with color-coded laminated cards on clothes pins clipped to dishes to alert people to ingredients.  Different colors alert people about meat, allergy, diet and other concerns.  Those who bring dishes use dry-erase pens to mark dietary considerations.  The meat alert card has boxes to check for vegetarian, vegan, pork, chicken or beef.  Allergy alerts are peanuts, tree nuts, soy, dairy, milk, shellfish, fish, eggs, wheat or chocolate.  Diet alerts are gluten free, dairy free, low sodium, low fat, low sugar or low carb.  After a meal, the committee wipe the laminated surfaces clean.

Lynn said more might attend church if there is a section for those with sensitivity to fragrances.

“We need to make a safe environment for people with chemical sensitivities,” she said.

Lynn recently purchased an Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) accessibility compliance kit.  It includes light and sound meters, and a rolling stick to measure a ramp’s slope; heights of toilets, sinks, the undersides of a table; how far a mantle sticks out; doorway width; maximum reach, and mirror height.  The tools help her identify easy fixes—adding two mirror tiles at the base of a mirror or putting a cup dispenser beside a high water fountain.

“I have a comprehensive approach to working with needs of a variety of people,” she said.

She has evaluated church school curricula and prepared a vertical bulletin for a friend with hemianopse, which cuts horizontal vision.

“The ADA helps but focuses on accessible bathrooms and spaces, not on making the chancel and programs accessible,” she said.  “We need to move beyond ADA requirements for new buildings.”

Lynn hopes her consulting business will expand beyond the United Methodist Church.

For information, call 456-7196, email LMSwedberg@comcast.net or visit www.umdisabilityministries.org.