Promoting Disability Awareness at Your Annual Conference Session
by Lynn Swedberg
A recommendation adopted at General Conference 2012 by a vote of 870 to 33 reads as follows:
“Each Conference shall designate that at least one Annual Conference session during the 2013-2016 quadrennium will have a theme centered on Disability Awareness to set an example for each District and Local Church. Resources and guidance are available from the Committee on Disability Ministries and UMCOR Health.”
Since this recommendation is not found in The Book of Resolutions of The United Methodist Church 2012, you may not have heard about it before. Yet there is still plenty of time to implement it. This article will provide the answers and tools that you’ll need to proceed.
Why Disability Awareness?
Why should one annual conference session have a theme centered on disability awareness? Many different reasons come to mind. First and foremost, the New Testament teaches us the importance that Jesus placed on ministry to and with people who have disabilities. In the United States, at least one in five persons has a disability. Worldwide, the number of people with disabilities is rapidly increasing as a result of aging, natural disasters, and war.
Item 3302 in The Book of Resolutions calls for leading “the local churches in attitudinal change, to the end that the people called United Methodists are sensitized to the gifts, needs, and interests of people with disabilities, including their families.”
The United Methodist Church has promoted itself as a church of “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors.” Its doors need to be fully open to all who want to enter. Local United Methodist churches and districts also look to their annual conference for guidance. Thus congregations will be more likely to celebrate Disability Awareness Sunday if they have seen how such a celebration is done.
Defining a Theme
By using the word theme, the Disability Committee sought to give each annual conference flexibility in planning its response. While using disability as an overall conference theme would be ideal, selecting one worship service, workshop, presentation, or other single event is more likely. What is most important is helping the annual conference attendees understand what it means to have full inclusion of people with disabilities in all aspects of church life.
One possibility would be to link disability with one or more of the denomination’s four areas of focus. For example, including people with disabilities on annual conference planning teams would provide them with active leadership training. A church that offers a new style of family-friendly worship where no one is “shushed” could model this format to help other churches learn ways to create new places for new people. Or a conference session could highlight the link between disability and poverty by designing an outreach project, such as building a fully accessible Habitat for Humanity home. A fundraising campaign might also help alleviate preventable blindness and hearing loss in developing countries.
Here are some ways to raise your conference’s awareness of the needs of persons with disabilities. The following suggestions can also help local churches plan disability-awareness events.
Add to the usual team that plans annual conference sessions by including persons living with a disability and others who have a passion for inclusiveness. Start by asking members of your conference Committee on Disability Concerns to suggest team participants.
Discern the level of disability awareness present in your annual conference. If a survey is needed, you may use questions selected from the surveys at the following website: http://www.da-edomi.org/con-survey.html
Based on accessibility audits of churches in your conference, determine what percentage of church buildings meet basic accessibility standards. This will help you determine whether further training or other resources are needed. An Annual Accessibility Audit form is available at this site: http://www.umdisabilityministries.org/access/audit.html
Ensure that your conference meetings are held in a physically accessible venue where hearing and visual needs are also accommodated. The following website provides a checklist to help with site planning: http://www.umdisabilityministries.org/download/session.pdf
Invite persons with disabilities to take leadership roles in your event. Find ways that these participants can share their gifts, strengths, and stories.
Planning a Worship Service
In planning a conference-wide Disability Awareness worship service, employ a liturgy that local churches could adapt. As a starting point, you may use the resources found at http://www.umdisabilityministries.org/dasunday/base.html but also be creative and develop elements unique to your conference.
For example, invite people with disabilities to preach, serve as liturgists, collect the offering, and serve in other active roles. You might also invite participation by any local performing groups that include persons with disabilities, such as choirs, drama groups, or liturgical dance troupes.
Select your service hymns carefully, looking closely at the wording of the lyrics to avoid songs that associate disability with sinfulness. To get you started, the Disability Committee website has a list of appropriate hymns and songs:
Include a litany, such as those found at http://www.uccdm.org/access-sunday/. After checking United Methodist sites, extend your search to other denominations. Some have excellent resources. You might also incorporate a video in which individuals tell personal stories—drawing not only on positive experiences, such as finding a welcoming church home, but also on difficult ones, such as the plight of a family repeatedly asked not to bring a child with autism to church. Find a good storyteller to do a dramatic reading of a story of acceptance and inclusion.
Highlight historic contributions by persons with disabilities. One church selected hymns and other music by composers with disabilities—such as Fanny Crosby, who was legally blind—to use during their Disability Awareness service.
Consider an “Accessibility and Inclusion Fair” to showcase technology, service providers, and resources that could help churches become more accessible. You might include vendors who provide platform lifts, accessible playground structures, or assistive listening devices. Also consider organizations such as local chapters of the Hearing Loss Organization, National Federation of the Blind, National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), and the Special Olympics.
Put statistics about the prevalence of various disabilities in chart form. You might compile census statistics by Zip Codes in your conference to highlight the number of people with disabilities in local neighborhoods—people who might welcome a home visit and an invitation to church.
The Rev. Debbie Hills, who chairs the Disability Concerns Committee of the Western Pennsylvania Conference, describes a host of activities undertaken at her conference’s sessions. “We generally get five minutes at the podium,” she reports, “to present whatever we choose. We’ve created great videos on awareness activities. We also have a booth in the exposition area highlighting ongoing disability-related annual conference projects and programs. There, we display resources—some downloaded from the United Methodist DisAbility site. In addition, we help staff the registration desk to assist people with disability concerns. We’ve been actively working with the conference sessions team to try to eliminate problems previously identified.
“At last year’s conference,” she continues, “we used golf carts to help people with mobility difficulties move around the conference campus. We also sponsored T-shirts for sale bearing slogans that can serve as conversation starters. We provided free T-shirts to our committee members and to people working as pages during the conference. Our most popular shirt—with the slogan ‘Who do you see...? Who does God see...?’—was introduced with a slide presentation about appearances and assumptions.
“Committee members posted signs on bathroom mirrors and exit doors,” Hills notes, “to keep attendees focused on our theme. Western Pennsylvania also has a Disability Awareness Sunday on a conference-wide basis.” See http://www.wpaumc.org/eventdetail/75487.
The Missouri Conference held a regional Disability Awareness worship service that can be viewed as a video, available at the following website: http://www.umdisabilityministries.org/dasunday/servicestl11.html. Planned under the guidance of the Rev. Russell Ewell, a member of the Disability Ministries Committee, this service could easily be replicated during an annual conference session.
Providing a Voice
Keep moving forward with plans to help raise awareness of the gifts and concerns of people with disabilities. Your awareness event should provide a voice to people in your conference who may not otherwise be heard. People with disabilities must take the lead in event planning and implementation. Be careful to eliminate any use of “us” and “them,”…as we are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28b).
Lynn Swedberg, a registered and licensed occupational therapist, is Disability Consultant for the DisAbility Ministries Committee of The United Methodist Church through Global Ministries/UMCOR Health. She is a member of the Pacific Northwest Annual Conference’s Committee on the Full Participation of Persons Living with Disabilities and is known for actively reminding the conference to incorporate accessibility into all its activities. This article was originally published in the May-June 2014 issue of New World Outlook magazine.
Members of the Disability Project present elements for communion during opening worship of the 2010 United Methodist Women’s Assembly in St. Louis, Missouri. Photo: Paul Jeffrey
The Missouri Conference Regional Disability Awareness worship held at Manchester UMC, Manchester, Missouri. Photo: Courtesy Russell Ewell
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