John Heath Sr. is a lucky man. He’s among the mobile.
But that didn’t stop him from seeing life through the eyes of those who can’t walk or have difficulty doing so.
The Cumming First United Methodist Church member led a communal effort to retrofit handicap-accessible doors for easier, more independent access to the church.
Heath watched other churchgoers struggle with the doors, most memorably a woman with a walker fighting the wind to open the heavy entrance.
“It’s things like that that get you motivated,” Heath said.
Those same doors now open at the touch of a button.
The church’s pastor, the Rev. John Cromartie, said “it takes a special willingness and insight” to notice the needs of the disabled.
“Until you are handicapped or know somebody that has been or have a special sensitivity, people don’t notice,” he said.
Heath helped the church raise all the money needed to get the proper equipment installed for two doors, which have been in use for about three weeks.
The doors are on the first floor of the church’s main building, past the curb cut to allow easy ramp access and leading to a set of elevators that carry visitors to the sanctuary or its balcony.
During the building’s construction in about 2002, many measures, such as pew cuts, were implemented to aid the disabled and give them the “communal experience,” as Heath put it.
For some reason, Cromartie said, the doors were overlooked at that time.
When Heath first brought the idea to the church, he said many wondered about the potential price tag.
But Cromartie said Heath did his research, enabling the church to discover the cost had become reasonable.
In fact, Heath estimated the total cost at less than $5,000.
“I think a lot of churches or people have that same misconception [of high cost],” he said.
Heath traveled the county and was surprised to find that only one of about 90 other churches had the technology.
Browns Bridge Community Church, which opened in late 2006, had the doors installed with construction.
That makes Cumming First United Methodist the first in the county to retrofit its existing doors, Heath said.
Now the church wants to spread the message that the simple and inexpensive measure can help make churchgoers with disabilities feel more at home.
“If this means there are another 10 churches out of 90, that would be a blessing,” Heath said.
Getting the process started involved a lot of research, so Heath contacted Marcus Gunter, a co-founder of the now defunct Forsyth Disability Coalition.
Gunter has had a walking disability his entire life, following a bout with polio as a child.
Having a disability has been an emotional journey, since he said he’s gone from sitting back and waiting to die “to giving people with disabilities every chance they could possibly have to lead a normal life.”
Any move that can help disabled people come to that realization can help, Gunter said.
So when Heath contacted him about the church doors, Gunter agreed it was a great idea.
Heath pointed out that while Sunday service does have plenty of enthusiastic ushers, weekday classes or other small church events rarely merit people manning the doors.
Cromartie said the church has heard plenty from the nearly 200 members affected by the change.
“People are very appreciative,” he said. “We’ve gotten very good comments because it’s been so helpful.”
Heath is looking for other possible improvements at the church. He’s got his eye on two more sets of doors.
“The goal is to make it totally accessible,” he said.