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Accessibility and the Virtual World

My first introduction to video conferencing software (beyond Skype) was in 2011. I was a transfer student at Lexington Theological Seminary following a several year break.

My return to graduate education was made possible because of a change LTS had made a couple years prior when they moved to a hybrid model – online courses plus two in-person intensives each year. As I've said about this time in my life "I didn't have the financial or emotional resources to relocate for school again." I was able to stay rooted with my family and a church AND pursue my call to ministry.

Several courses and cohort groups made use of video conferencing to have real time conversations in addition to "asynchronous" learning through videos and discussion boards. The software was less than stellar at times – the lag could be unbearable. I'm pretty sure in my three years of online education we changed software at least once.. 

When in March of this year I found myself, along with everyone else, adding video conferencing to my daily life I learned that technology and software has come a long way in 9 years. In 2020, The Year of Zoom, I am grateful for that.

During my last seventeen days at Christmount I participated in three different virtual conferences – Nevertheless She Preached, Evolving Faith, and Scott Clergy Conference. 

All previously have happened in person and in a normal year participation would have involved time away from work for travel and attendance, travel expenses, hotel costs, etc. In fact, the first two I have never considered attending because of timing and location. 

This year, despite them being mere days (and in one case hours) apart, I was able to participate in all three of these learning opportunities. 

They took different forms. Had different schedules. Offered different opportunities. All which I was able to experience from a rocking chair in the mountains of North Carolina whether it was Zoom presentations in the evening, watching a website livestream during the day, or attending a Zoom meeting each morning and afternoon. 

Leaders that taught from their home offices; hosts, artists, and musicians that gathered safely in studios to teach and perform live and others that pre-recorded from home; clergy gathered from homes and offices around the country, including a few of us watching from our own corners of Christmount. 

Preaching, teaching, music, worship, reflection, connection. 

The ability for me to participate in all three was made possible by a grant from the Disciples Home Missions, my sabbatical time, and the adjustments we all have been making because of our global situation. 

They say necessity is the mother of invention. LTS moved online in large part because it was a necessary change after the 2008 recession. Conferences have moved to online offerings because it is a necessary pivot when we can't gather in large groups or travel. 

The changes organizations of all kinds have made over the last seven months are borne out of necessity but often necessity leads to imperfect solutions. The longer we must respond to a change, to a new way of doing or being, the better we get at doing things in a new way – if we are able to be intentional and commit, even when we don't know when things will change again. 

The first couple of cohorts of LTS students in the online model felt a bit like guinea pigs. Doing things a new way requires being able to fail and recalibrate. Reacting to "unprecedented" times when we don't know how things will look in the near or long term future, means learning as you go and learning from others. 

Necessity can also push us to make changes that maybe we should have considered before it became necessary, before it was forced upon us. 

People participated in all three conferences that would not have been able to participate if they had happened as planned and scheduled. People who can't take time away, can't afford the cost of travel and lodgings, are disabled, can't juggle the responsibilities of childcare, work, and other responsibilities often never get to participate. 

These issues of access have always been around. In some ways they've become more profound with the growth of economic inequality in the United States. The costs of such events are too high for many. General Assembly for the Disciples of Christ and other denominations have been dealing with declining attendance and rising costs. 

And yet, many such events became more accessible this year. Eliminating the costs above and beyond registration fees, allowing access to recorded sessions for those whose schedule doesn't allow live participation, participating from the comfort of home instead of sitting in uncomfortable folding chairs in cold convention centers. Virtual events provide flexibility and access.

In other ways, it isn't ideal to move entirely online. We lose the opportunity for in person fellowship, networking, the literal change in scenery and opportunity to get away from our day to day routines.  There is a great blessing in the hybrid nature of LTS' program. Intensives on campus allowed us to see each other in "three dimensions", to have the informal conversations that build relationships, to experience table fellowship, and practice a different rhythm for a time. There are those who would have come to the conferences I attended in person but decided not to attend virtually.

The gifts of in person gatherings are important, and when it is no longer dangerous for us to all be in one place, we will go back to convention centers and hotels and conference rooms. 

But I hope, I hope that we will see the doors that have been opened, the people who have been included because we had this foray into the virtual world, and we find ways to expand what we think of when we think about accessibility. 

Whether it is hybrid events with both in person and virtual attendance, an increase in online conferences, gathering in person regionally to be connected to a national or global conference virtually – the options are there. 

As I have thought about and hoped for this change I have two concerns.

One, as we have seen with online schooling, technology and internet access is not universal. I will not pretend to know much about the differences in internet providers and types but no matter how good the software is, some still experience online conferences with lags and disconnections. And some do not have access to reliable devices to allow them to connect. 

Two, however we gather in the future, we need to see accessibility as the cost of doing business. Sign Language interpreters, recordings, transcripts, closed captions should be a part of the conversation from the beginning when planning online events and included as part of registration. It wouldn't hurt for us to also have more intentional conversations about accommodations – for families with young children, for the disabled, for minorities – for in person gatherings as well. Not just the bare minimum but what would create a welcoming and truly accessible opportunity. 

What I have learned from past and present experience is that it takes AND not OR for that to happen. 

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