May 01, 2014

‘We are going to try to be everywhere’

Each year at Annual Conference the EPA Conference Disability Concerns Committee makes certain there are about 20 handicapped parking spaces reserved outside the venue.  That’s only the first impression that this vital committee means business when it comes to enhanced accessibility. Step inside to see more.

At the 2014 conference, beginning Thursday, May 15, there will be much in store to aid persons with handicapping conditions. “We are going to try to be everywhere,” said Deaconess Barbara Skarbowski, committee chairperson and Secretary of the United Methodist Committee on Disability Ministries.

If you’re observant you may witness sign-language interpreters, closed captioning, large-print materials, audio headsets, volunteer helpers carrying trays at mealtimes, and even monitoring reports on disability inclusiveness. And you can’t miss the 9-foot tall Disability Concerns sign, and those eye-catching, black and white, zig-zag patterned scarves!

Skarbowski wrote the following message (slightly edited) to the EPA Communications Office, asking us to help get the word out to those who need to know:

Along with ramp access to the stage, we make certain there are two sign-language interpreters, and closed captioning services. (By the way, closed captioning is not only necessary for people who are deaf or hard of hearing, but it is also helpful for people who process the written word better than the spoken word, and for people whose first language in not English.)

The committee also makes sure that there are enough large-print materials and audio headsets for people who need increased volume and noise reduction in order to hear the proceedings better. People can request these accommodations on their registration form. We also have one lighted video magnifier (a large, lighted magnifying video screen) for a delegate who is visually impaired. (Wish we could offer more of those).

Really, our conference (Episcopal) office, thanks to executive assistant Amy Botti, and our committee work hand-in-hand to create accessibility at our Annual Conference. The committee gets the names of people who need assistance, and we try to make sure they have the large-print materials, headsets, etc. But in years past this has been a challenge.

This year we will have a table–clearly visible because of a 9-foot tall black and white flag that reads “EPAC-UMC Disability Committee” at the entrance to the plenary area.  Folks who need large-print materials, audio headsets or any other accommodations may stop by that table to retrieve these items and get other information.

Additionally, this year our committee members will be highly visible while wearing high-contrast (zig- zag pattern) black and white scarves. ‘Scarf wearers’ will be at a table at the entrance to the main session hall, plus at our exhibit table. And we will be in the parking lot at the entrance to the venue to help people with mobility challenges maneuver through the crowd. At mealtimes we’ll help carry trays, drinks, etc., to tables. We are going to try to be ‘everywhere.’  But, of course, we’ll need some extra helpers. So we’ve asked a couple of other committees—young adults, UMW and others—to help us help others.

Our committee also helps with the ministry of monitoring for inclusiveness as the Conference proceedings unfold. I believe we are one of the only Conferences to have the Disability Committee be part of the monitoring team. Last year was the first year we were part of this ministry. While it is hard to tell if someone at a microphone has a ‘hidden’ disability, we did note things like ‘rapid speech’ that leads to the closed-captioning operator making more mistakes.

In our monitoring report, we noted this and reminded the body that those with auditory processing problems, like people just learning English, may not have understood the proceedings as well as they could have if people would simply slow down when speaking. We also noted when people turned their heads away from microphones or did not speak clearly.

The biggest help for us would be to plug the black and white scarves and explain who we are and why we are wearing them. Also plug our table just beyond the ‘bar’ of the session, where people can get large-print materials, audio headsets and arrange for mealtime assistance.