For many years, the Disability Concerns ministries of the Christian Reformed Church and the Reformed Church in America have partnered to offer training for regional and church disability advocates.
Usually, disability advocates gather for these events in person and engage with speakers from across North America. This past year, as borders were closed, social distancing rules were put in place, and gatherings of 50 or more were no longer allowed, none of this seemed possible.
“We work alongside many people who are used to having restrictions imposed on them by society; and we learned from them, received support and encouragement from them, and as a result re-imagined our leadership event for 2020,” said Mark Stephenson, director of CRCNA’s Disability Concerns.
For the first time, Disability Concerns took the training online and opened it to anyone connected to the ministry.
“Shifting to an online platform meant that many more participants had access to the event than in the past,” Stephenson said. “It also meant that our speakers did not need to travel. One of our guest speakers joined all the way from Hungary, and other participants joined from Canada, the United States, and Kenya! The absolute joy for those of us who had planned this new event format was to see friends that previously could not have participated in an event that required significant travel.”
“To be able to attend this conference for the first time was incredibly meaningful to me,” said Jenna Hoff, disability advocate for Inglewood CRC in Edmonton, Alta., and co-editor of the Disability Concerns Canada newsletter. “For several years, I dreamed of attending this conference but couldn’t, as my disabilities make travel a significant challenge. I am so grateful it was held online this year.”
The event did not quite go off without a hitch. In fact, hosting the conference online helped identify accessibility issues that even Disability Concerns staff hadn’t considered.
“We discovered that using the chat feature (of a video conferencing app) and having a presenter speak simultaneously does not work for people with low vision who use screen readers,” said Terry DeYoung, coordinator for RCA Disability Concerns.
Participants also reminded speakers and event organizers to be as descriptive as possible throughout the online event, noting who was speaking and what images were being shared on screen.
“Advocates with a variety of disabilities helped us identify barriers, design a more accessible virtual environment, and troubleshoot the issues that we discovered,” DeYoung said. “This has given us first-hand experience we can use to advise others about creating accessible virtual environments.”
Stephenson said the conference theme,“Agility,” was chosen long before the pandemic. “We could not have anticipated how relevant this focus would be,” he said. “As the reality of the pandemic sunk in, our ministry had to rapidly shift how we offered support and training to disability advocates and churches across North America.”
Disability Concerns staff demonstrated agility by reaching out to volunteers and those who access resources, shifting their training to online formats, and listening and learning from a community that embodies agility naturally.
“As a ministry, we have reflected on 2020 and the lessons learned,” Stephenson concluded. “We could not have managed this year without the ongoing support of our disability community. They offered support and guidance at every turn.”