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More room at Marsh

Chapel shortens pews to accommodate wheelchairs

Wheelchair accesible seating at Marsh Chapel. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

The Sunday worship services at Marsh Chapel are broadcast throughout the city on WBUR and around the world via the Internet. But for years, the services have presented accessibility problems for people with physical disabilities.

“We’re aware that the building was built in the 1950s and there weren’t some of these concerns,” says Rev. James J. Olson, an associate dean of Marsh Chapel. “But part of our educational mission, as we’re teaching students how to lead worship, is to have people who are variously abled participate.”

This month, the University chaplains are making further progress in improving the chapel’s accessibility by shortening two pews on either side of the sanctuary, creating enough space to accommodate a standard-sized wheelchair among the congregation. Previously, people using wheelchairs sat in the aisles during services.

“It’s just taken personal initiative on the part of some of the staff members here, saying, ‘There are folks who need help coming into Marsh Chapel,’” says Olson. “Sometimes it takes someone who can’t make it up the stairs to point out to us that we need to make a simple adaptation.”

A hydraulic lift system has been in place at the chapel for several years, and last year listening-assistance devices were made available for those with hearing difficulties. The chaplains also work with the Office of Disability Services to provide sign-language interpreters when requested.

In addition, Olson says, the University’s clergy make an effort to change certain aspects of the services when needed to involve people with physical limitations. “If your presider can’t take the stairs to the pulpit, move the table,” he says. “It’s simple things like that.”

Making the chapel fully accessible will require some major structural changes, and there are already concerns over whether the space can accommodate all the various religious groups on campus. The chaplains have been able to work with most student groups so far, but the structural limitations raise questions about balancing the chapel’s “mission of hospitality” with the history and structural integrity of the building itself. A discussion about the long-term plans for renovation and improvements is already under way.

“We just have to balance things,” Olson says, “and make other adaptations.”