Disability Ministries Committee logo using  stylized person standing and another seated in wheelchair whose arms form the horizontal arm of the cross between them.  Logo says Making the Rough Places Smooth - Removing Barriers Is. 40_4
March 2016
Vol. 6  No. 1
Platform lift up 5 steps to the stage_ in folded against wall position
               Stage Lift at                    Warren Willis Camp


of the

United Methodist

 Disability Connection


Greetings in Christ!   


We are entering a busy time when the United Methodist denomination will hold many meetings and conferences. General Conference 2016 is on our minds, and our annual conferences will follow soon after. This issue provides extensive information on making these conferences and events as inclusive as possible.  Compiling these tools has been a labor of love. 


Inclusion is not something that happens overnight.  We must all work together to learn what is needed and make the changes.  All of us need to be alert for instances when someone is left outside the process, and to do everything in our power to make things right.  Sometimes a sense of humor will be required!  When things don't go as hoped, we need to be quick with grace and forgiveness, while making plans to avoid repeating the mistake or omission.  We need to listen to each others' stories, both stories of inclusion and exclusion, to learn with our hearts as well as our minds.  Thanks to Rev. Janine DeLauney, co-chair of the United Methodist Association of Ministers with Disabilities, for sharing many of the above insights with me. 

Blessings in this season of Eastertide!


Lynn Swedberg, Editor

In This Issue
Annual Conferences Enhance Accessibiliity
Unpacking Ableism
Using an Accessibility Coordinator
Captioning Services Expand Information Accessibility
Upcoming Events
Quick Links
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Annual Conferences Enhance Session 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? Here are a few ideas from the 2015 sessions in various annual conferences, which can also be used for local church meetings and events:

Information access: Besides making sure that the registration process asks people what kinds of accommodations they need, conference disability concerns committee members serve at information tables and make announcements at the start of the session to let
two women wearing blue scarves with accessibility symbols stand behind the committee display table with handouts and a map shown
PNW disability committee members wearing their accessibility scarves
people know the accessibility features available. The Pacific Northwest Conference committee members wear blue scarves with accessibility symbols during the entire session so that persons needing assistance can readily identify them even when away from the table.  

Many annual conferences now caption their sessions and project the words on a screen near the stage. See the article in this issue on captioning for more information on how to take this step. American Sign Language interpreters are provided by the Central Texas Conference and the Virginia Conference, among others. Many conferences check out assisted listening system headsets that can improve the hearing experience when the PA system isn't
Woman signing sits in front of stage near a screen displaying captions
Captioning and ASL interpretation - photo courtesy of PNW conference

For people who cannot read small print, conferences offer a variety of options beyond large print handouts. The Illinois Great Rivers Conference posts legislative materials on-line and sends digital materials via 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: Several conferences have moved to different venues 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.  

The Iowa Conference rents a lift for stage access, and the Pacific Northwest Conference always includes a ramp as one method to access the stage. 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. The North Alabama Conference rents portable accessible toilets as one way to address this problem.  

One companion seat and the floor space next to it marked with accessibility symbols
Designated seating at UMW Assembly
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. The California-Pacific Conference solves this by using chair covers to designate seats along the aisles for people needing them. The Northern Illinois Conference works to ensure that people with mobility concerns are seated close to the conference central doors. Other conferences arrange for wheelchair "cut-outs" in seating areas in various parts of the plenary room. 

Sensory needs: The Iowa Conference offers a prayer room which is also a quiet retreat for people who need a time away from the busy conference floor due to sensory or emotional overload. The Western Pennsylvania Conference chose sensory defensiveness as their disability focus for 2015, and provided a Fact Sheet on Sensory Processing Differences to help church staff and members understand this particular hidden disability. Disability Concerns committee members, known for wearing T-shirts with a different slogan each year, wore shirts that read "To Hug or Not to Hug" on the front and "That is the ?" on the back, teaching awareness that not everyone tolerates touch in the same way. The East Ohio Conference avoids using fresh flowers, and asks people to refrain from overindulging in perfume and aftershave lotion to help people with allergies or sensitivities.  

Disability awareness: The Mississippi Conference offered a pre-conference Disability Ministry workshop. A report during the session included information on basic disability etiquette.  Several individuals with disabilities participated in worship leadership and other activities. The Baltimore-Washington Conference Commission on Disability Concerns had an exhibit table and presented a new disability awareness video they had filmed. Check their website as well as the DisAbility Ministries committee website for ideas on materials to stock at such a table so that members can return home equipped to spearhead improved access in their own congregations.

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Unpacking Ableism in Event Planning
When a conference or event is being planned, many decisions are made without considering their impact on persons who live with one or more disabilities. No one sets out to exclude people, but unconscious ableism causes well-intentioned people to make decisions that do cause exclusion. You may or may not be familiar with the term "ableism," which many computer spell-check programs don't recognize as a word. Similar to racism, ageism, and sexism which divide us by characteristics over which we have no control, ableism is based on the assumption that there is such a thing as "normal" and that some of us fall outside that range. The concept of "normal" comes to us from the field of psychological testing and has no place in the community of faith. 
Rather than acknowledging that all of us have needs that must be met in order for us to participate successfully in a given event, ableism labels some needs "special needs" and takes the stance that meeting special needs is optional. Someone with an ableist mindset may look around an inaccessible setting and remark that there is no need for accessibility because no one who uses a wheelchair attends anyway! This view tends to place a heavy emphasis on the costs of accessibility, rather than realizing how universal design of events or buildings benefits many people, e.g. mothers using strollers or people pushing heavy AV equipment carts.
Accessible parking spaces made unusable by piles of snow intentionally piled there by snow plow operators
Plowing snow into the accessible spaces illustrates ableism

Ableism often means that decisions are based on stereotypes, not on actual needs and requests. Event planners without disabilities may believe they are qualified to make decisions for people who have disabilities, often without consulting the people who are affected. Disability is frequently overlooked as a diversity issue, even by people who want their event to attract a diverse crowd.  
The Gospel calls us to do better. We can learn to plan ahead to meet access and participation needs. We can then communicate the access available and reach out to the many who may have been unable to attend in the past. We can joyfully come alongside each other as allies who ask what is needed for full participation and advocate for equal access. Then the kin-dom of God will have come a little closer to all of us!

To help us uncover any unconscious ableism we may have the Committee is developing a new tool: "Unpacking Ableism: A Self-Assessment Tool for Conference Planners and Presenters." Look for this on our website very soon.  
Using a Conference Accessibility Coordinator
How do you make sure that individual needs are met at your conference or event? You designate an accessibility coordinator whose sole role is to plan ahead and problem-solve accessibility and accommodations issues throughout the event. Rev. Russell Ewell, co-chairperson of the United Methodist Association of Ministers with Disabilities, says that having a designated coordinator makes all the difference in enabling a person with a disability to fully participate in a conference. 
The Northern Illinois created this position for their 2015 Annual Conference. Kathy Wellman, a member of the Accessibility Ministries team, volunteered to fill this role. 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.
Banner with image of children standing and using wheelchairs_ with the words Accessibility Ministries resources for making the Word accessible to all
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. Russell 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. 
See the Resource section for forms and procedures to help with accessible event planning, including a more detailed Accessibility Coordinator job description. 
Accessibility Coordinator Position Description from the Northern Illinois Annual Conference: 
Prior to Annual Conference:  
  • Communicate with each person who has identified an accessibility need to better understand and address the specific issues.
  • Relay the requests for accommodation to the Annual Conference Committee and prepare for providing for said need.
  • Work with those preparing for registration, seating, and logistics to ensure accommodations are arranged for.
During Annual Conference:  
  • Meet with and further assess the needs of persons who requested accessibility accommodations. Make sure their needs for accessibility are being met.
  • Confer with the Annual Conference Committee and staff when accessibility concerns arise.
  • As new persons indicate the need for accessibility assistance, meet with them and help provide those accommodations.
After Annual Conference:
  • Prepare a brief report for review by the Annual Conference Committee.  Summarize the needs communicated by persons in attendance, the ways in which those needs were met or unmet, and potential growth areas for providing accessibility in the coming Annual Conference year.
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Captioning Services Expand Information Accessibility
Up to 20 percent of the US population has a hearing loss, and the percentages grow higher with an aging audience. Hearing loss is one of the most common service-connected disabilities of returning veterans of the Gulf wars. A good sound system and assisted listening devices are not enough for persons with significant hearing loss. You might automatically think of hiring sign language interpreters to make your events more accessible to people who can't hear the proceedings. Consider captioning instead as a more globally useful accommodation, since only a fraction of people with hearing loss understand American Sign Language. Add sign language interpretation if someone requests it when they register, of course. For open community events both captioning and signing should be provided. You will find many people appreciate captioning, including some for whom English is not their first language. 

A number of services, systems, and options are available to help you provide captions. Full service companies offer captioning in English and Spanish for individuals, small groups, or large events. They also can add captions to your media ahead of time. Even if your event is in a rural area, remote captioning services can be provided using a voice and internet
Two hands touch keys of a steno machine with screen
Steno machine used for captioning - photo courtesy of Dallas Captioning
connection. These firms employ highly trained captioners who use steno machines, the same devices uses by court recorders to capture the proceedings verbatim. This system is called CART, which stands for Communication Access Realtime Translation. 

Unfortunately not every event or meeting has the budget to hire CART operators. Less effective, but still better than not providing any visual accommodations, are the following systems: 

Computer Assisted Note-taking (CAN) relies on volunteers who are skilled typists and keep up the best they can with the presenters. Typist can use the auto-correct feature to designate certain keystrokes to generate whole words or phrases as one way to improve their speed. People relying on CAN captioning need to be patient and ready to accept a significantly higher error rate than with CART.  

Voice recognition dictation systems, while promising, have yet to be perfected. Watch a YouTube video with the automatic captions turned on if you need to be convinced of the continued high error rate and grave mistakes made. But if one person uses the voice recognition equipment, takes the time to train the software to recognize his or her voice, builds a vocabulary in the software, and speaks distinctly into the microphone a fair version of what is said can be represented in captions. 

Pen and paper or computer note-taking may work for an individual who can understand most of the proceedings but not be able to take notes at the same time. Using a flip chart and having a volunteer record the main points also helps, as does using an outline on Power Point slides and sticking closely to the outline.  

Image shows arms and hands ofa woman using steno machine in the balcony of Lovers Lane church with view of congregants and stained glass windows in the sanctuary below
Captioner at Lovers Lane UMC, Dallas - photo courtesy of Dallas Captioning
When working with a captioner, the speed and accuracy can be dramatically improved if you provide an advance copy of the orders of worship, scripture readings, and transcripts of anything else that has been prepared ahead of time. Always submit lists of names ahead of time, such as clergy appointments or award recipients. Having the materials in advance allows the captioner to build the needed vocabulary based on the words you use, and also to scroll through liturgies, hymns, etc at the exact time the words are being spoken. 

Technology for captioning is improving constantly. Some providers can use encoders to add captions directly to the video feed so they are projected on the main screen. This system is easiest for the most viewers, as it does not require a person to sit in a separate section, or try to follow captions on a tablet or smart phone while watching a speaker at the same time. 

Make it your standard to add captioning to all spoken media prior to the event.  For instance any video report prepared for annual conference should have legible captions. You can hire a captioning company to do this, or do it yourself. Find links to YouTube videos offering step by step instructions for captioning (and much more information) on our Captioning Resources page. Doing the captioning yourself is not difficult, but it is time-consuming. Make sure there is ample contrast on the screen - white letters are difficult to read on light backgrounds. No matter what type of captioning you select, be assured that many of us will be grateful for the improved access to the event we are attending.

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The DisAbility Ministries Committee is excited to share with you these new or updated resources which will help your conferences and events work for all participants.  Feel free to use and adapt them freely!  Please e-mail us or check later on our website if your computer cannot open the linked PDF files.

This is the master list with a step by step process and an extensive list of links to further information about all aspects of planning an accessible event. (8 pages)

To avoid forgetting a step it helps to develop a checklist.  Use this one as a starting point and develop one tailored to your event. (2 pages)
Family Restroom sign with family and wheelchair accessible logos
This sign reminds us of the need for gender neutral accessible restrooms

People are more likely to provide specific information if your form lists a number of options for accommodations that may be needed.  Adapt this in your registration packet. (1 page)

As discussed in the article above, having an accessibility coordinator makes a big difference. Start with this job description and modify it based on your experience and setting. (2 pages) 

All your planning isn't enough if your speakers and leaders aren't educated in accessibility. Send this handout ahead of time to ensure speakers are aware. Includes a short resource links section on accessible presentations. (3 pages)

Request feedback after the event to help make next year's conference even more accessible. Use this form to find out what worked and what didn't. (1 page)

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." 
Upcoming Events
April 22, 2016                                                                                                  Nashville, TN          Faith and Flourishing: Embracing Inclusion for People with Disabilities, Their Families, and Congregations                                        
Co-sponsored by TASH and Vanderbilt Kennedy Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities, held at Christ Presbyterian Church.  Keynoters include Erik Carter, Bill Gaventa, and Amy Fenton Lee.  To register click on the web-link.
May 9-12, 2016                                                                                                  Decatur, GA          Being the Beloved Community: Welcoming Children of All Abilities to Church                                                                                           
 Columbia Theological Seminary hosts this event geared to making the church open to children with disabilities.  Bethany McKinney-Fox, Mark Crenshaw, and Barbara Newman will lead plenary sessions.  Worship and workshops explore the theme in depth. Information and registration are available at this website.
May 23-26, 2016                                                                                                 Holland, MI
       Summer Institute on Theology and Disability 

The seventh annual Summer Institute brings together international academics, theologians, practitioners and others - people with and without labeled disabilities - to explore the inclusive intersections of theology and disabilities. For more information refer to the Faith and Disability website
September 28, 2016                                                                                          Addison, IL           Celebrating Hope: Promoting Mental Wellness and Resiliency                                                                       
Pathways to Promise conference, with keynoters Craig Rennebohm and Nanette Larson. Event is followed by a 2 day Consultancy Training Institute for those wanting to establish mental health ministries or program development.  See more information at Pathways.
Please forward this information (use the link below) to people in your congregation and annual conference who are in charge of planning meetings and events.   May you be blessed by the community that develops when our events are truly inclusive and the voices of all are heard!   
If you are at General Conference in Portland, look for us wearing bright yellow shirts with our revised logo.  We'd love to hear what is happening in your part of the world! 
DisAbility Ministries Committee of The United Methodist Church 
Contact any of us through the Committee email address.