For Christians, conferences are a huge help and support. From gender or denominationally specific conferences to specialist volunteer conferences such as youth, children or family work, they can often be a key part of supporting our faith journeys or training, encouraging us in our volunteer roles. The same goes for those in full time ministry; conferences can be an encouraging event or even a ministry saving moment in time.
Recently Tanni Grey-Thompson wrote an article about disabled bus pass holders no longer being able to use those passes at peak times. That is – at the time they need get to work.
You're probably wondering what on earth that has to do with conferences!
There is a link - honest, the main one being "assumptions". London transport appear to think that disabled people don't work and simply assumed that they don't need to travel at peak times. It seems they want to stop disabled people clogging up the system for people who do work.
Tanni also talks about many other frustrating issues with using transport in London when you are disabled – which is where the other connection is: most of these conferences - for Christians and otherwise - are in London.
I'm a wheelchair user and regularly travel to London, so I can add an amen to everything said in her article.
But let's look at the problem of assumptions.
For many conferences there appears to be an assumption that either disabled people won't come or that everything will be immediately accessible with the chosen venue because that's the law. It may well be, but, as an example - where is the level access and how does it work? It's rarely at the front of the building where the door with steps up to the welcome desk is. There is rarely a welcome at the level access door and from experience, they're often locked.
There may be the assumption that only one or two sorts of disability will need support and those people can sort it out themselves.
For the smaller specialist symposiums the assumptions often go further with the notion that disabled people don't 'do' ministry and won't come, so they are held in inaccessible locations. I have found this on many occasions and been prevented going to things I would have loved to attend – with no apology from the organisers or an offer of recordings or live streaming.
For those of us with disabilities who want to go to conferences and meetings, especially when they are held in London, it can take hours of research to see if we can access the building and the transport, and then plan a safe accessible route that won't let us down at the last minute with lift failures. This compared to others who can just click a link and book to go.
If organisers of conferences and events put accessibility info on their booking pages, or even a phone number to ring for this information, it could save us hours of work. I have emailed various organisers over the years asking for information and regularly not received a reply. A dedicated contact point would make a world of difference.
The need will depend on the situation and the person – if it is just for a small ministry meeting, a gathering of people of like mind and work, the questions will be different. I like to know if there's level access, a loo I can get into and my notes sent electronically prior to a meeting – simples!
On the whole, all the people I work with in London are wonderful, recognising when there is no accessible route and so pay for a taxi. But there are times I'm paying out an extra £50 in taxi fares for a meeting where no expenses are on offer.
It's good for conference/event organisers in London to know the added pressure of travel for disabled guests. Accessible transport is not accessible for all, and where it is, the systems in place regularly fail. This sometimes means missing half of a conference you've paid for, or a whole meeting.
If you are a wheelchair user, even getting a taxi to pick you up is a challenge! I use an app to hail taxis, and last week I watched as driver after driver accepted and then cancelled my booking. The problem? I declared I was a wheelchair user. If I don't, I'm charged more for waiting time.
So if you are a conference/event organiser, and you think disabled people won't or don't come...we want to, but there are often just too many obstacles in the way. Could you help us?
There is a groundswell of opinion on the bus pass issue that will result in campaigns and court cases. Good.
But I am very concerned that one day, a disabled Christian will get to the point where they've had enough of the perceived cavalier attitude Christian organisations, churches and events have to disability, and take us to court too. It's already happened to one formally faith based youth organisation.
If you need advice, go to Churches for All where there are a whole host of disability organisations willing to support you in making your event, meeting or church accessible.