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‘Inclusion ministries’ has become her calling

Occupational therapist helps improve access for those with disabilities

Mary Stamp The Fig Tree

Lynn Swedberg has applied her 32 years of experience as an occupational therapist to make her Spokane church, Manito United Methodist Church, more inclusive.

Now she’s moving beyond that by sharing ideas nationally as a quarter-time disability consultant for the national United Methodist General Board of Global Ministries and chair of its Task Force on Disability Ministries.

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

Swedberg picked up ideas from her years working with Home Health doing geriatric occupational therapy.

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 the 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 says. “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, Swedberg notes.

Manito has large-print bulletins, a chairlift Swedberg used when she broke her ankle, a remodeled bathroom, a choir that signs as well as sings and an assistive listening system.

More plans are in the works through the church’s Inclusivity Committee. It is working on constructing a ramp and may someday have an elevator to improve access for people who use wheelchairs or walkers, or have a temporary injury that limits their access to the multi-split-level building.

With several deaf or hard-of-hearing members at Manito, Swedberg and 11 other church members have learned to communicate using sign language.

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 signing choir enhances the worship, Swedberg says, because signing flows like sacred dance. When she had laryngitis this winter and couldn’t sing, she signed along with the songs.

Swedberg previously lived in Walla Walla and in Milwaukie, Ore., and studied occupational therapy at the University of Puget Sound. She came to Spokane in 1978 to be near her grandmother.

After her grandmother died in 1997, Swedberg went on several trips to Romania with Wheels for the World, a program of Joni and Friends, an international disability ministry.

While contemplating 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,” says Swedberg, who hopes to expand her consulting business beyond the church.

She has developed an accessibility checklist to help United Methodist Annual Conference meeting planners incorporate such accommodations as ramps to speaker platforms, street-level entries, vans and golf carts.

Swedberg advises speakers not to talk while writing on a board with their backs to the audience, which makes it difficult for lip readers to follow along. She also encourages videos that use captions.

At a National Camp and Retreat Leaders gathering, Swedberg helped outdoor ministries leaders learn to make church camps more inclusive. She has walked around Lazy F Camp in Ellensburg and Twinlow Camp in Rathdrum, helping the managers begin to see with different eyes.

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

There are also sensitivities based on traditions, such as providing gluten-free bread or wafers for communion.

For Manito potlucks, Swedberg developed markers made of color-coded laminated cards on clothespins that can be clipped to dishes to alert people about ingredients that could cause allergies or other dietary issues.

She says more people might attend church if there were a section for those with sensitivity to fragrances.

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

She recently purchased an Americans with Disabilities Act accessibility compliance kit.  It includes light and sound meters and a rolling stick to measure such things as a a ramp’s slope; heights of toilets, sinks and the undersides of a table; doorway width; mirror height and more.

The tools help her identify easy fixes – such as adding mirrored tiles at the base of an existing mirror or putting a cup dispenser beside a high water fountain.

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

Condensed and reprinted from the April issue of The Fig Tree, a monthly newspaper that covers faith in action in the Inland Northwest. For more information, call (509) 535-1813 or visit
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