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Mar 03
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Sitting with Dignity

Just in time for Shambhala Day celebrations at many centers this coming weekend, some fresh ideas about setting up the shrine room to enhance participation for those who sit in chairs

by Stefan Carmien

Part of the mission of the working group for accessibility and disability is to pay particular attention to making the practice environment accessible. Towards this end we have created checklists for centres to make their spaces accessible for students who have visual, auditory and motoric disabilities and made them available on the Shambhala accessibility website. We have also worked with practice centres, particularly Dechen Chöling, to ensure accessibility to spoken teachings with simultaneous translation systems. Where needed, we have done some consulting and provided help with tailoring shrine rooms and lecture spaces acoustics to maximise intelligibility of amplified systems in these spaces. In addition, we have provided individual inductive loop and headset systems for people who need these in programs. All of these are addressing the specific sensory needs of our sangha in order to learn and collaborate in teaching situations.

As the first and second waves of students age, and as older students freshly arrive, there is an increasing proportion of us who are unable to use the standard gomden/zabuton sitting posture. There have long been since a certain number of us who needed to sit in chairs, and even some of the earliest meditation instructions by the Druk Sakyong, Chögyam Trungpa, were tailored for those of us who were not young and supple at the time.

As the proportion of those of us in chairs or wheelchairs has increased, there has been a ‘population explosion’ of students in the back of the hall in the ‘chair section.’ Increasingly, those in the back rows are older and often senior students.  Perhaps it is not the best practice to put the ones who literally have, in some cases, worn out their bodies with practice in the back of the room. However, there are times when we do not put non-gomden users in the back rows; these include weddings and sukavati/Shin Kham ceremonies. In the larger centres a section of the hall, typically a wedge starting up front near the shrine and widening towards the back, is set up with chairs for family and friends–those who are not Buddhists and would feel uncomfortable sitting on a gomden.

For years the working group has asked for something similar to be done for larger international programs in practice centres. I am happy to announce that this was tried last summer at the Scorpion Seal first year assembly with the Sakyong at Dechen Choling. You can click on this link to see the seating diagram for the Dragon tent as it has been typically been set up over the years: DCL original seating plan.

The numbers of chair users changes, dependent on the program, with the more advanced programs requiring more places for chairs. For the Scorpion Seal year one assembly, the program directors decided to give the alternative seating arrangement a try. Click on this link to see the alternative: DCL seating with chairs.

In this case the seating arrangement provided spaces for 19 chairs, which comes to about 15% of the approximately 125 participants and staff. Besides integration into the whole practice space, making space available near the front of the hall is a good practice. It allows participants with mild hearing impairments to augment the amplified talk with the well-documented practice of lip reading/face reading; many people unconsciously use this method as their hearing declines. The integrated seating worked well without any problems for the ten-day program. We in the working group look forward to other large programs implementing similar approaches, as appropriate.

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2 responses to “ Sitting with Dignity ”
  1. Pat Medeiros
    Mar 13, 2017

    I am happy to hear that large programs are providing better access for those sitting in chairs. I think the wedge concept that you describe can also work well in smaller meditation halls. I would also suggest that the seating plans include some space between chairs so that chair sitters aren’t sitting shoulder to shoulder. Just 8-10 inches of space between chairs allow for some personal space as well as space for handbags and practice materials on the side. Space under chairs may be needed for extra support cushions.

    When purchasing new chairs for a center, it may be useful to try out several chairs to see what is most comfortable and supportive for those using chairs. Some things to consider are the height and angle of the seat, the placement of back support, and whether chairs with or without arms best meet the needs of chair sitters.

  2. Ellen Berger
    Mar 3, 2017

    It always good to hear about increasing mobility accessibility.
    Here is a point to remember that has also been mentioned in the past: The best kind of chair for people with leg troubles is one where the front cushioned part slopes downward, not upward. If the edge slopes upward, it digs into somebody’s legs, and they still might have trouble.

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