Before our children were even old enough to attend them, we heard of the beauty of Steubenville Catholic Conferences. Friends and acquaintances alike sang the praises of the renewal of faith and refreshed spirits that their children experienced each Summer. When our eldest children reached high school age, we were determined that this needed to be a part of their faith experience, and worked hard to put aside the money necessary for them to attend. We saw the deep cut to our budget as a worthwhile investment to their faith lives.
Last year, we again began setting aside the funds for yet another child to make her first pilgrimage to a Steubenville Conference, this time in St Louis. We were sending our daughter, who is a wheelchair user, with her older brother, and their youth group, to what we hoped would be a beautiful weekend with God.
The week before they were due to leave, I received a concerned phone call from a friend of ours, who also uses a mobility device and was attending the Conference at the same venue our kids would attend. “I’m here at Steubenville in St Louis,” he said, “and it’s not accessible.” He recited for me a litany of problems he was having maneuvering around the conference space including lack of handicapped accessible doors, blocked aisles, locked elevators, bathrooms doors too narrow for wheelchairs, and more. Most disturbing to us was what he referred to as the “penalty box.” Church groups at Steubenville Conferences are assigned seating in the venue, but people with walkers or wheelchairs weren’t permitted to sit with their groups. Instead, they were placed off to the side by themselves in a designated and roped off seating area, and no one was permitted to sit with them. “I feel like a leper,” this adult friend told us. “It’s obvious that accessibility is an afterthought, and I’m little more than an inconvenience to them.”
Segregated and alone were not what we had hoped for our daughter to experience at a Catholic youth conference. I drove to our parish to give our youth director a heads up. Thankfully, she was just as disturbed as we were at the idea of isolating a 14 year old from her peers and the chaperones/adults who were traveling as a group, and the lack of basic accommodations that we’d been alerted to. She called the conference organizers a week before they were scheduled to arrive and attempted to fix all of these issues by notifying them that our daughter was coming. She asked them to be honest with her about what we could all expect, and if it was as we’d been told, we wanted Ella’s registration fees refunded before she was put in this kind of situation. Don’t worry, we were told, the Steubenville staff would be ready for her when she got there, and make sure that the weekend ran smoothly.
They had been there less than two hours when I got the first phone call from my daughter, she couldn’t get to her dorm room because the only outside door to the dorms that had a ramp instead of stairs was locked to the outside. Her youth leader had gone inside to open the door and get it unlocked only to be told that keeping it locked was a security measure and couldn’t be changed. For Ella to get inside the building, she’d have to wait by the back door until someone from her group went through the front door and all the way through the building to let her inside. “And of course it’s raining, so my chair and I are soaked,” she added. Rain or shine, it didn’t matter, the back doors were locked as a security request made by the conference, and no appeals that weekend saw it reversed.
The evening wasn’t over before I got a rueful text message. “The elevators are locked too, and my room is on the second floor. We’re waiting for them to find the person with the key, but they think she might be at dinner. This sucks. I want to change out of my wet clothes, and I have to pee. Do you think they’d give a crippled girl the key, or am I going to have to hunt for the key lady every time I want to go up or downstairs?” It was a great question, and it was answered a half hour later when the key master was finally located. Neither my daughter, nor any adult in their party, could be given access to the elevator key. The elevators were off limits because “the teenagers might play in them.” “I hope there’s not an emergency,” she typed, “because that could really suck if I’m stuck up here while someone searches for the person with the key.”
The problems were to continue throughout the weekend, with frequent updates from both my daughter and the youth director.
Despite their being told to expect a student with a wheelchair with our group, their assigned seating was nowhere near the handicapped “penalty box.” Our parish’s youth were seated on the opposite side of the auditorium and up the stairs from where Ella was required to sit. Please could she sit with her group, the people in charge were begged. Her friends would piggy-back her up to a seat, and her chair could be stored out of the way until the session was over. Please, could they let her sit with her friends? The answer was a resounding ‘No.’ Her chair, even tucked out of the way, was a trip hazard. She had to sit in the “Handicapped Area.” No exceptions.
With tears in her eyes, she tried to make her way down the aisle, only to be stopped by the sound equipment that was in her way. She would have to go outside the building, back and around, and in the other door to the designated area. They relented and allowed her to bring one friend with her, but only because the door was heavy, and “there’s no one there to open it for you.”
I wish that I could say the weekend improved at some point, but it never did. By the final session, my girl’s requests for people to hold or unlock doors, find the person with the elevator key, or get the friend who was allowed to sit with her a folding chair so that they could actually sit with her were met with barely concealed annoyance that was remarked on by everyone who was with her. The message was loud and clear, she was annoying the staff simply by being present.
When registration for this year’s Conference rolled around, our parish was in the process of hiring a new Youth Director, and the DRE, unaware of what had gone on the year before, booked our group into the same St Louis conference. Maybe it would be different, I told my daughter. After all, the youth director had had long discussions with the Conference organizers, and I had had more than one phone call with them. We had spoken to other people with mobility issues who had raised their concerns after last year’s events, so we knew they were aware that there were serious problems. We crossed our fingers and hoped that the planners had made adjustments for those who were not able bodied to attend.
Last week we heard from the first of our disabled Catholic friends who will to venture to St Louis. After speaking to organizers, he reported “Nothing has changed. It’s still not accessible, and I’m still an inconvenience.” We let our girl make the call, and she’s opted not to go.
She curled up next to me as I called the Youth Director to withdraw her from the group, and cried. After five years of fighting our parish for accessibility and dialoguing with the diocese about the unmet needs of people with disabilities to even get into buildings and participate in events with only minimal success, she’s done. “I’m sorry, Mom,” she said, “but I don’t think I’ll be Catholic when I’m an adult. I believe in what the Church teaches, but they clearly don’t want me here.”
Once upon a time, there was a disabled man who wanted to get close to Christ, and his companions literally ripped the roof off of the building to make that happen. There was no sacrifice or inconvenience too big if it got even one soul close to Jesus. It seems as though we’ve lost our way on this issue.