A Disability Awareness Conference in Saginaw, Michigan this week encouraged parishes to create an inclusive and accessible environment for those with disabilities.

Peg McEvoy, the diocese’s Coordinator of Faith Formation and an organizer of the event, said the goal is to help foster relationships.

“More than just being welcoming, it’s about building belonging in the parish….people with disabilities are part of our community, they belong with us, they are part of our parish family,” McEvoy told CNA.

Held at Holy Spirit Parish in Saginaw on August 1, the event drew an estimated 170 participates from the diocese and other nearby states, including Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio.

The conference included Mass, talks, workshop sessions, and praise and worship. Workshop sessions discussed the newly revised “Guidelines for the Celebration of the Sacraments for Persons with Disabilities,” released a year ago.

One of the speeches, McEvoy said, discussed the ways parishioners and priests can help create a welcoming environment.

“It’s about how, in our languages and actions, we really be respectful of the dignity of every person and how we can be more accessible,” she said.

Part of this is leading others “to understand that they too are part of the community and have a place where they can participate in a meaningful way,” she added.

Lori Becker, respect life coordinator for the Diocese of Saginaw, told CNA that the conference also covered practical advice. She said parishioners should reach out to families with members who are disabled.

“The families want to be treated with understanding and patience. They want to be appreciated for who they are as opposed to being defined by their disability,” Becker said.

“Just like anyone else, people with disabilities desire to be wanted at their parish. That means if they have been away from the parish for a while, they want someone to call them and ask how they are doing.”

The conference was a joint project by a number of the dioceses offices, including Respect Life, Christian Service and Faith Formation. Vendor booths were set up for organizations to promote their services, such as Do-All, a non-profit that provides people with disabilities opportunities for employment and job training.

Jan Benton, executive director of the National Catholic Partnership on Disability, was the keynote speaker. As a major advocate for pro-disability legislation, she shared practical means for parishes to create an inclusive environment.

Melissa and Michaela Davert gave powerful testimonies about their own medical conditions. The mother-daughter duo live with the same brittle bone condition, Osteogenesis imperfecta, and have worked to publicly promote human dignity