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 OPENING DOORS Task Force on Disabilities of the Presbytery of the Cascades

… a model for other Presbyteries

… and the 2006 Nancy Jennings Award Recipient

The Nancy Jennings Award, presented by Presbyterians for Disability Concerns (PDC), goes to a person, congregation or other PC(USA) entity that affirms, supports and advocates for the gifts, rights and responsibilities of people with disabilities in the life of the church.

The August 21, 2005 issue of Parade magazine emphasized that a big barrier remains for America’s 54 million persons with disabilities - and that is within the church. Presbyterians for Disability Concerns (PDC) confirms that this is a sad but largely accurate reality of the experience of many persons with disabilities in our churches.

It is with great delight, however, that we can report that the Presbytery of the Cascades in Oregon has stepped up to the plate and is enthusiastically and proactively helping its 124 churches remove barriers for participation by persons with disabilities. Presbyterians for Disability Concerns is pleased to announce that the 2006 Nancy Jennings Award recipient is the OPENING DOORS Task Force on Disabilities of the Presbytery of the Cascades. We lift up this presbytery and Task Force as a model of taking seriously God’s call that “my house shall be a house of prayer for all people” (Isaiah 56:5) and for the numerous practical ways the Task Force is engaging to help its churches hear and live out this mandate.

In 2002 the Presbytery of the Cascades Committee on Congregations reflected on the fact that while approximately 17% of a membership in a congregation has some form of permanent physical or mental disability, individual churches have little resources for remodeling their facilities to remove barriers to their full participation in the life of the church. With the support of Co-Executive Presbyter, John R. Mahon, and Committee on Congregations chair, Merle Bottge, the OPENING DOORS Task Force on Disabilities was formed with the goal of helping the presbytery address these concerns. The Task Force was commissioned in early 2002 to amplify God’s welcome to ALL people into the community of faith, including those with differing abilities. The OPENING DOORS Task Force’s mission is to encourage and assist congregations to make their churches more welcoming and inclusive to people with disabling conditions. Their emphasis is on improving awareness, disseminating information, providing technical assistance, and motivating congregations to action. Their message is that barriers of attitude, communication, and architecture need to be removed if congregations are to become welcoming to all persons into the full life of the church. John Mahon describes the Task Force as “an exciting new program that is transforming the ministries of our congregations.”

To introduce its program to the churches in the Presbytery of the Cascades, OPENING DOORS developed a program kit including a theological rationale for welcoming people with disabilities, the PC(USA) mission and mandate for persons with disabilities, handouts on welcoming persons with physical, mental and developmental disabilities, information on the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) with CD ROM, a 15-step Congregational Action Plan, creative fundraising ideas, a barrier-removal plan checklist and information about financial assistance grants and low-interest loan programs available for churches. Several months after the kits were distributed to churches, workshops were conducted in various locations throughout the presbytery to provide additional training. This packet, as well as other materials generated from the Task Force, is highly professional in content and style. This professionalism earns OPENING DOORS credibility and encourages pastors and other church leaders to engage with its message.

Subsequent to the introductory efforts, the work of the Task Force has focused on six areas of activity:

Bi-monthly direct mail pieces on various topical issues. Examples of these mailings include: state-of-the-art technology for assistive listening systems; communications etiquette when interacting with people with disabilities; annual posters linking a disability issue with specific scriptural text; a brochure designed and produced by the Task Force on congregational hospitality; and a manual entitled, “Greeting Persons with Disabilities and Making Them Feel Welcome in Your Congregation” for ushers and greeters.

Articles for OMNIBUS, the Presbytery of the Cascades newspaper, featuring success stories such as barrier removal projects by churches, a first-person account about living with a disability and encountering physical and attitudinal barriers, a caregiver’s story, and children with special needs.

Training workshops conducted at various locations throughout Oregon in conjunction with triennial Presbytery meetings and lay leadership gatherings. Topics included disability awareness, children with disabilities, caring for caregivers, ADA legislation and information on specific disabilities.

On-site technical assistance for individual churches including barrier-removal surveys, developing ideas for architectural modifications, a 50-item checklist of communication, workshop and general programming considerations, etc.

Financial grants. Since its inception in 2002, OPENING DOORS has awarded grants for twenty-two barrier removal projects in individual churches. Projects supported by these grants include exterior ramp construction, elevators, restroom remodelings, special education teaching tools, assistive listening device systems, large print materials, power assist door openers, accessible drinking fountains and signage. Of its $22,000 budget in 2006, fifteen to eighteen thousand will be used for financial grants.

The Reedville Presbyterian Church in Aloha, OR applied for an OPENING DOORS grant to fund the purchase of an assistive listening system and construction of a unisex accessible restroom facility located conveniently to all church activities. During the process of screening the application, it was discovered that the entries to the church were too narrow to permit wheelchair access so the church responded by increasing the scope of their project to include entry door modifications and exterior signage directing users to the new accessible entrance.

Springwater Presbyterian Church in Estacada, OR is a 65 member rural church which, like many congregations, has a growing number of older adults in its membership. After conducting a building accessibility survey, their session applied for and received an OPENING DOORS grant to replace their aging and unreliable assistive listening system. After installation of the new state-of-the-art system, its use increased to the point that the church received another grant to increase the number of personal receivers by 70%. The new assistive listening system supplements other accessibility initiatives undertaken by this enlightened church which includes providing large print materials, written sermon texts, ADA-conforming interior signage, restroom modifications, accessible parking and new walkways.

Special collection of resource materials covering a full spectrum of disability topics purchased for the Presbytery’s Media Resource Center. An annotated bibliography has also been published.

The Task Force is also working collaboratively with other faith groups and organizations. Their materials are being used by other presbyteries, other denominations and by interfaith groups advocating for persons with disabilities. In 2004, Presbyterians for Disability Concerns used some materials in our Access Sunday packet.

In 2004, OPENING DOORS initiated a statewide effort of inter-faith groups and eleven different state and county agencies within the Oregon Department of Human Services to co-sponsor a statewide conference for caregivers entitled “You Are Not Alone.” The program included 28 different workshops and was attended by over 200 people. A subsequent pre-presbytery workshop on caring for caregivers attracted over 50 people. The Task Force believes that engagement on issues of caregivers is important to the work that they are doing for individuals with disabling conditions.

In 2005, the Task Force launched ecumenical discussions that resulted in the creation of two more broadly based organizations, the Interfaith Disabilities of Oregon and the Interfaith Council on Mental Illness. Eight clergy pilot groups are currently discussing the experiences of individuals with mental illness issues and the church’s response.

The OPENING DOORS Task Force is led by the enthusiastic and passionate leadership of Chairperson Rick Parfrey, and the effective work of members Leon Bolen, Glenn Chilcote, Debby Huskey, Rev. Eileen Parfrey, Mary Jane Sawai, Becky Tallman, and Irene Tegeler. While no longer active, it should be noted that Frank Morrell was one of the driving forces behind its formation. Our kudos to each person for their significant, diligent and impressive work to help enable churches to indeed be houses of prayer for all who have disabling conditions.

We lift up the significant ministry of the OPENING DOORS Task Force on Disabilities of the Presbytery of the Cascades as a model for other presbyteries in promoting the full inclusion of persons with disabilities in our churches and are thrilled to name OPENING DOORS as the 2006 Nancy Jennings Award recipient.