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UMW event urges awareness of disabilities

UMW event urges awareness of disabilities

LAKELAND – In many cases, churchgoers and ministry leaders alike can help people with disabilities fully enjoy worship with some simple thoughtfulness, workshop attendees were told Friday during a “Mission u” event at Florida Southern College.

For example, asking a person who can’t walk or see whether help is needed before touching or pushing is a common courtesy and respects the person’s space. Churches can also use technological advances, along with time-tested methods like American Sign Language, to make church services accessible to those don’t hear or see well, said Mary Harris, who leads a ministry for the deaf at Conway UMC, Orlando.

Including people with disabilities was a major focus of this year’s Mission u, a four-day event featuring education and fellowship that began Thursday, July 10. The event is offered annually by Florida’s United Methodist Women. This year's theme was "Learning Together for the Transformation of the World." 

Mary Harris talks to an audience about ministry for people with disabilities
Mary Harris, who leads a ministry for the deaf at Conway UMC, Orlando, demonstrates sign language communication at a Mission u workshop. Below, workshop participants listen and practice commonly used signs. Photos by Susan Green.
Mission u workshop participants practice sign language skills

Ministry leaders who work with people with autism and developmental disabilities also had parts in the program.

In addition to disability awareness, classes focused on the Roma of Europe, commonly known as gypsies, and spiritual growth, with the topic “How Is It with Your Soul?”

In Harris’ session, about 30 attendees learned that even within a particular disability category, there can be considerable differences that lead to different needs and approaches.

Among people who don’t hear well, Harris said, there are those who have been deaf from birth and others who suffer hearing loss over time.

People with a lifelong hearing loss are more likely to know sign language, while others may feel daunted at trying to learn those hand signals and gestures late in life.

Patience and sensitivity – slowing down with sign language or not hurrying someone in a wheelchair – can go a long way in helping people with disabilities feel independent and involved in church activities, listeners were told. They were also reminded that not all disabilities are visible or readily apparent.

Using appropriate technology also can help make church activities more accessible. For people with profound hearing loss, for example, recent advances have opened up a world of communication, Harris said.

“Now they are Skyping each other,” she said. “Their technology … has taken a lot of isolating barriers away [to allow] them to share together.”

People who don’t know sign language should feel free to convey simple ideas, including a welcoming attitude, through body language and facial expression, Harris said.

“Really and truly, a lot of sign language is very visual,” she said.

Church leaders also were encouraged to complete an accessibility assessment to determine where improvements can be made in welcoming people with all levels of ability. The United Methodist Church has developed an audit checklist and encourages congregations to invite people with disabilities to be involved in the assessment. To access audit forms and information, click here.

For a United Methodist perspective on accessibility, including a resolution adopted at the 2004 General Conference, click here.

-- Susan Green is the managing editor of Florida Conference Connection.