Guidelines for In-Person Public Gatherings
We have now been living with the COVID-19 pandemic since 2020. While the rest of the world seems to have moved on, disabled people remain vulnerable. It is of utmost importance to protect people with disabilities by maintaining Covid-safe practices during your events and services. The U.S. Center for Disease Control’s most recent guidelines do not consider the individuals most vulnerable to the Covid-19 virus.
Safety for People with Low-Immune System Functions
Masking of ALL in-person participants with KN95 and above quality masks significantly lowers the chance of a person with low-immune system function–and for whom vaccines may not be effective–contracting the COVID-19 virus and dying or becoming severely impaired by Long Covid. Requiring masks, especially indoors, creates a safer environment for those most at risk. Be sure to provide KN95 masks. Masking is loving your neighbor, and is one of the best ways to protect people with the following conditions (this list is not exhaustive): Diabetes, Cerebral Palsy, Asthma, Kidney failure, Heart conditions, Lung disease, Cancer, Liver disease, Developmental disabilities, Learning disabilities, HIV, Spinal cord injuries, Depression, Obesity
Require proof of vaccination
Vaccinations significantly lower the risk of a deadly COVID-19 infection and protect those around us. Consider requiring proof of vaccination, or, alternately, negative test results for unvaccinated people.
Have congregants arrive 20-30 minutes early to allow time for rapid testing and results.
Ventilation and adequate physical distancing
Choose service spaces that are large enough to accommodate adequate physical distancing. Make sure the space has adequate ventilation, such as air filtration, fans, open doors, and windows to allow cross breeze.
Include outdoor options
Depending on your geographic location, create a viewing and gathering space outdoors, where the virus is less likely to spread. Be sure to include people who choose to participate outdoors as much as possible.
Publicly share what safety measures you are taking
Amplify your safety measures by sharing them with all attendees, and in all email communications.
Neurodivergent people experience and interact with the world around them in a variety of ways. There isn’t a right or wrong way of thinking, learning, and behaving. Autism, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), developmental speech disorders, dyslexia, dysgraphia, dyspraxia, dyscalculia, dysnomia, intellectual disability and Tourette syndrome are considered neurodivergent. Accessibility supports may vary widely. When a neurodivergent congregant requests accommodations, have a conversation with them to understand how to support their participation in services and events.
Many neurodiverse people are extra sensitive to external stimuli. Excessive sensory input can be overwhelming and exhausting. Overstimulation can occur when the senses take in more information than the brain can process. Provide support by offering a low stimuli “quiet room.” The space should have a low-volume, captioned livestream of the service.
Fragrance and Scent-Free Environments
Ensure a low-scent or scent-free environment in consideration of those with allergies, migraines, MCAS (mast cell activation syndrome), and MCS (multiple chemical sensitivities). This includes asking congregants to forgo wearing perfume, lotions, and other fragrances.
Scents can severely affect a person’s health, causing headaches, upper respiratory symptoms, shortness of breath, and difficulty with concentration. People with allergies and asthma report that certain odors, even in small amounts, can cause asthma symptoms.
While your impulse may be to create a “scent-free zone” in your sanctuary, this does not work for a number of reasons, and is akin to making a “no-smoking section” on an airplane. Scents carry, and the practice segregates those with sensitivities, diminishing inclusion and belonging.
Cleaning supplies used in public spaces should be scent-free. Have an open dialogue about this to ensure everyone feels heard and included.
Accessible parking spots must be designated by signage and blue stripes. Vehicles that don’t have an accessible placard or designated license plates must never be permitted to park in accessible spots or on the adjacent diagonal stripes. This includes motorcycles, bicycles, and golf carts.
For many people with disabilities, transportation access is a huge barrier in attending services and programs. Your city may lack safe, accessible public transportation, and transportation provided by the members of your community is a way of ensuring access, safety, and trust for those with disabilities. If possible, provide a wheelchair-accessible shuttle for pick-ups and drop-offs. Organize carpools among laypeople with wheelchair-accessible vans. Consider providing vouchers for the local paratransit system to people who are eligible for this service.
Greeters and Ushers
Greeters and ushers are often the first contact people have at a service. Appropriate training is imperative to ensure an inclusive and welcoming environment. Educate all greeters and ushers on accessibility protocols, including accessible seating for wheelchair users, emergency exits, locations of accessible restrooms, and quiet spaces outside of the sanctuary. Make certain your ushers and greeters use welcoming, respectful, inclusive language. Phrases like “differently abled” and “handicapped” are inappropriate. “Disabled” is not a bad word! Do not force assistance upon someone. Gently offer, but if someone declines help, avoid asking “Are you sure?”
Do not allow ushers to remove personal durable medical equipment–such as wheelchairs, crutches, walkers, or canes–away from the user. These mobility devices are bodily extensions crucial to a disabled person’s wellbeing and movement, especially in the event of an emergency.
Make sure exits are clearly marked in case of emergency. Ushers should know all exit locations because they will assist people to find the closest exits. An evacuation plan is crucial. Clergy, ushers, and others on staff must be aware of the procedures should an evacuation be necessary.
Many congregants who are wheelchair users prefer to sit with family and friends, just like anyone else. Too often they are placed in the “wheelchair section,” a location at the front of the sanctuary or in the back. Do all you can to seat people where they want to be seated. Avoid putting wheelchair users in the center and side aisles. This is unsafe and can be very uncomfortable.
Tips for Improving the Accessibility of Your Community
- A number of companies rent and install temporary small ramps for sanctuary access. While not a permanent solution, it’s important to include access requirements in your budget. Make sure elevators are in working order and available for use. Include the location of elevators in service handouts and announcements.
- Pathways should be free from obstructions with wide doorways and wide aisles to accommodate those who use wheelchairs, walkers, canes, crutches, and scooters as ambulatory devices.
- Make sure floors are clean and dry, as water, leaves, dust, and paper make surfaces slippery and unsafe.
- Make sure there are spaces for wheelchair users to sit and participate in the service. This may include pew cuts or spaces between chairs designated for wheelchairs users.
- Accessible restrooms are a must. Everyone should be able to use the restroom! Gender-neutral restrooms should also be accessible.
- Install ramps to the pulpit. Invite all people to access the pulpit using the ramp.
- If a ramp isn’t available, move podiums, altars, and tables to the floor level. An architect table is a low-cost way to ensure access for readers and service participants who use mobility devices.
A service animal is usually a dog that is specifically trained to do work or perform tasks for a person with a disability. Service animals perform some of the things that the individual with a disability cannot perform for themselves. The most familiar type of service animal is a guide dog who may assist a blind person. Service animals are trained to assist people with other kinds of disabilities in their day-to-day activities as well.
A working service animal wears an identifying vest or collar. They are not pets and petting or feeding can distract them from their job of supporting the person for whom they work.
A service animal makes it possible for someone with a disability to participate in services and other opportunities available in your congregation. The care or supervision of a service animal is solely the responsibility of their owner. You are not required to provide care, food, or a special location for the animal. Do not pet or interact with service animals while they are working or without the owner’s permission.
Consider signage such as, “No pets allowed. Service animals are welcome.”
Childcare During Services – Accommodations
Many congregations provide childcare while parents attend services. Registration forms for childcare must ask parents to include information that will create a positive experience for all children. You might include:
- What will help your child manage separation?
- What are your child’s favorite playtime activities?
- Does your child like to play independently or with other children?
- If your child has allergies, what should we avoid?
- Are there foods and/or beverages to avoid for snacks?
Share this information with childcare staff. Adult staff should be familiar with working with children with disabilities.
If a child has accommodation needs that can’t be provided, let the parents know as soon as possible. They may be able to provide needed supports or plan for other options. There are likely times you will not be able to honor all requests. Be honest with parents about what you can and cannot do.
Outside The Sanctuary
- If you are holding an outdoor service, you must consider safe access for people who use wheelchairs, walkers, scooters, canes, crutches, and other mobility devices, as well as those with balance concerns, blind people, and those with low-vision.
- Hold services at a location where people can park and stay in their vehicles while the clergy lead services on behalf of the congregation.
- Stream services on Zoom or your preferred platform so people can have access.
- Outdoor space should be adjacent or close to accessible parking.
- The ground must be level. Avoid “divots,” hills, uneven grassy areas, bumps, gravel, dirt paths, sand, sudden drop-offs, or any other obstacles.
- Cover seating areas to protect people from the sun.
- Provide drinking water, disposable cups, and a wastebasket.
- Use folding chairs at events that include food so wheelchair users can sit at a table they choose.
- Maintain uncluttered and wide space between tables and other seating.
- Plan meals with consideration of food allergies. Prepare gluten-free, tree nut, dairy and eggless options. It is a good practice to place these foods away from foods that can cause an allergic reaction as some people may react to airborne particles.
- Provide large print and Braille versions of the blessings.
- Have someone available to accompany people who need assistance filling their plate in buffet lines and bring them to tables.
Meals and Events Held at Members’ Homes
Many houses are inaccessible to those who use mobility devices. If holding a service or event at a member’s house, consider the following:
- Rent a ramp to allow access to homes with stairs.
- Ensure elevator access to apartments.
- Doorways should be wide enough to allow wheelchair access.
- Paths to and from the house, as well as outdoor areas, should be paved.
- Ensure ample parking close to the location. If possible, allow disabled guests to park in the driveway or garage.
- Ensure access to the bathroom.
- Ensure adequate room in bathrooms to allow wheelchair movement and should have grab bars installed. Soap dispensers, towels, and faucets should be in reach from a sitting position.
- Ensure adequate room in hallways and around seating to allow movement of those with ambulatory devices.
- Pets like dogs, cats, and rabbits can cause severe allergies and should be stored away from guests.
- If none of these are feasible, choose another location, like a nearby park or community center.