Experiencing Annual Conference From a Disability Inclusion Perspective

Every year, clergy and laity in the United Methodist Church gather for what is known as an annual conference. For those outside the United Methodist Church, an annual conference is essentially a regional gathering of churches to send and develop leaders across the area. The gathering is a time of worship, business, and fellowship for two or three days.

I have been to annual conferences as a reporter, observer, and delegate in three annual conferences. Each does some things to provide access for those with various disabilities. But, how effective is an annual conference in welcoming those with disabilities in its gathering? 

I am thinking of the gathering in West Virginia since that is where I serve as an ordained elder. The West Virginia Annual Conference is held each year at West Virginia Wesleyan College, which is a historic liberal arts college within the conference located in Buckhannon. 

Why is this important to consider? The Center for Disease Control and Prevention states that 32 percent of West Virginian adults have a disability, whether it is mobility, cognition, difficulties with living independently, hearing, vision, or self-care. The disability community in West Virginia is a sizable percentage of the state’s population. It is a community that religious leaders in West Virginia must be concerned about effectively reaching with the love of Christ.

What Went Well?

I commend the planners of the annual conference for its continued usage of golf carts across the campus. These carts enabled those with mobility issues to have access across the vast space that makes up West Virginia Wesleyan. 

I took advantage of these carts at various points during the annual conference, some on my own and others with encouragement from conference or church leadership. I attended with my mobility issues (arthritis in my knee and a potential MCL strain), which created difficulties in walking the campus. The golf carts were a blessing to take some of the strain off my knee and created an opportunity to connect with the various students driving individuals across the campus. 

I appreciated, as well, how the bulletins used large font types (higher than 12-point). A large font type enables those with difficulty in seeing to read materials and participate in worship.

What Could Have Been Better?

We all love Wesley Chapel, but the space can be a barrier to full inclusion. The steps make it difficult to traverse for those with mobility issues, and signage was not clear as to where someone could have gone to have easier access to the chapel. I was looking for an easier way because I needed it throughout the conference. 

The narrow aisles and small narthex make it a challenge for someone to move who might have difficulty. Also, someone with mobility issues who might need to go to the chancel area to speak or present would find that task difficult.

The lack of a sign language interpreter presents a challenge for people who are deaf from participating in the chapel or from home. As well, having one or two sensory bags during worship gatherings would have been a blessing for some families.

As a parent with two children with different needs, I did not consider bringing my children to conference. While the language of our conference is that we love and welcome our children, I did not feel that my children could attend the children’s conference or other events because of the lack of accommodation for children with special needs. Registration for children’s conference did not provide space to detail specific needs that a child may have. This sends a message that an event can not offer care to those with unique challenges. The lack of accommodation creates an obstacle for families who want to participate in doing so.

Why Mention Any of This?

Oftentimes, the church only focuses on disability inclusion when members and leaders experience a need. A member who comes to church and is now in a wheelchair provides an opportunity to build a new ramp. The child on crutches forces a conversation on spacing in the children’s wing. While this is understandable, it sends a message to the disability community that we make room only when needed.

That is not how we prepare for guests. When we prepare for guests in our homes, we consider their needs and make our homes ready for the company to come in anticipation of their arrival. The church needs to do a better job of making room and preparing for the guests to gather at the feast of God’s table within the disability community. God has invited the disability community to the table, and it is up to the church to prepare the table. 

We cannot talk about building a bigger table if there are people in our community who cannot gain access to the table that is already there.

In an Appalachian context, churches and communities look to denominational leadership for development and support in showing how to do fundamental ministry in their communities. These ties are vital for also showing how to reach out to people with that we may not know where to begin. I believe more churches would get on board with making space in their fellowship for individuals with various challenges, especially in an Appalachian context, if they saw denominational networks and leadership showing the way.

We need to lead the way in making room for the disability community, who are often excluded the most from our worshiping communities.

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