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Conference Accessibility

How does your annual conference ensure that all members and visitors, especially people with disabilities, are able to participate fully in your annual conference session? Or, if you are planning a larger-scale church meeting, regional rally, or similar event, how do you ensure the same? Here are several suggestions based on practices adopted by various annual conferences:

  • Information access: besides making sure that the registration process asks people what kinds of accommodations they need, people with knowledge and ability to resolve problems serve at information tables and make announcements at the start of the session to inform attendees of the features available. These people may have scarves or badges to identify themselves, as in this photo from Pacific Northwest.

    two women with scarves around their necks, the scarves have wheelchair, hearing, and other accessibility symbols on them

  • For a variety of hearing needs, caption the session and project the words on a screen near the stage; provide assisted listening system headsets, and provide American Sign Language interpreters. Pacific Northwest Conference photo.

    woman using American Sign Language, in the background is a screen with captions

  • For people who cannot read small print, offer a variety of options beyond large print handouts. This could include posting materials on-line or sending them by e-mail so members can modify the documents to meet their specific needs. Members can use tablet settings for a larger font, or have their screen reading program read the materials aloud.
  • Physical access to building: choose a venue (which may involve not using a church building) so that members no longer have to contend with multistory buildings that lack elevators. Volunteers drive golf carts or church vans as shuttles to help minimize distances for people for whom walking is difficult. On some campuses both are necessary, with the golf carts travelling the off-road distances from parking lots. If too few accessible parking spaces are available, additional spaces are marked and set aside.
  • Physical access inside: use a lift or a ramp for stage access. The ramp serves as a convenient staging place for people to stand before they are introduced.
  • Limited numbers of accessible restrooms can slow down the session. If necessary, rent portable accessible toilets as one way to address this problem.
  • Accessing one's seat in the middle of a seating area with tightly spaced rows of tables and chairs can be daunting for someone with balance or breathing problems. Seats near the aisles can be designated with chair covers or other signs. It is also helpful to seat people with mobility concerns close to the doors, and to place wheelchair “cut-outs” in seating areas in various parts of the room (you may find it necessary to police these areas so they aren't used for storing backpacks or bags).

    One companion seat and the floor space next to it marked with accessibility symbols.

  • Sensory needs: a prayer room can also be a quiet retreat for people who need a time away from the busy conference floor due to sensory or emotional overload. Awareness of this and other conditions, such as touch sensitivity, or fragrance allergies, can be provided in conference materials or even shirts with slogans.
  • To raise awareness and explain changes, offer a pre-conference Disability Ministry workshop, and offer information on basic disability etiquette. Have individuals with disabilities participate in worship leadership and other activities. Include disability committees in exhibit tables.

To assure that individual needs are met at your conference or event, it is best to designate an accessibility coordinator whose sole role is to plan ahead and to solve accessibility and accommodations issues throughout the event. Kathy Wellman, a member of the Accessibility Ministries team, filled this role in the Northern Illinois Conference in 2015. She communicated with everyone who asked for accommodations prior to the conference, but discovered that additional persons requested assistance once her presence became known. She served as a “listening presence” and found that people were very appreciative of her support. Her roles were as varied as teaching people to use the FM assisted listening system units and fashioning a foot stool for a member who needed to keep her foot elevated.

Committee Banner at Northern Illinois Conference

An accessibility coordinator should have familiarity with a variety of disabilities and accommodations, and also with the workings of the annual conference. Persons with disabilities who work with accessibility or independent living, occupational or physical therapists, and family members of persons with disabilities are all possible coordinators. The person must be willing to speak up and serve as an advocate. DMC member Russell Ewell observed that a good coordinator is proactive and continually aware of what needs to be in place and who is or is not being included.

The Rocky Mountain Conference Disability Visions—Ability Matters Committee has developed a useful planning tool and checklist, available to download at their website and included in the A to Z document. One gem from their document—when asking participants to request accommodations, also ask “what gifts, skills, and/or experience do you have that can enhance full inclusion and accessibility for all of us in attendance.”

Adapted from The Voice, March 2016
Updated December 2017