How does your annual conference ensure 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: to start, make sure that the registration process asks people what kinds of accommodations they need. Place people with knowledge and ability to resolve problems at information tables. 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.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.
- 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, mark and set aside additional spaces.
- 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. Also 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.
- For information about hearing needs, visit the Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Committee’s Assistive Technology: Sound Systems and Hearing Loops page.
To assure individual needs are met at your conference or event, 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. She discovered additional persons requested assistance once her presence became known. Acting as a “listening presence,” 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.
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 experience accessibility or independent living, occupational and physical therapists, and family members of persons with disabilities are possible coordinators. The person must be willing to speak up and serve as an advocate. The Reverend 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.
Resources for Conference Accessibility
- A – Z Road Map Accessible Events (pdf): this is the master list with a step by step process and an extensive list of links to information about planning an accessible event (8 pages, updated January 2017).
- Events Accessibility Checklist (pdf): 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, updated December 2017).
- Sample Event Registration Information (pdf): people are more likely to provide specific information if your form lists a number of options for needed accommodations. Use in your registration packet (1 page).
- Coordinator Accessibility Job Description (pdf): having an accessibility coordinator makes a big difference. Start with this job description and modify it based on your experience and setting. (2 pages).
- Accessibility Tips for Speakers and Program Leaders (pdf): 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).
- Post Event Survey Amer Bar Assn (pdf): 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).
- Mountain Sky Conference Disability Visions—Ability Matters Committee has a useful planning tool and checklist, available to download at their website. 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