by Donna Rose
When most people think about the word "disability," they think about wheelchairs, curb cuts, ramps into buildings, and wheelchair-accessible restrooms. But what about those with sensory deficits? For most people who are blind or visually impaired, church can be one of the most isolating places. Hymnals are seldom offered in large print or braille; rituals such as communion involve navigating aisles of pews, chairs and/or people; and on the most sacred days of the Christian calendar, there is no public transportation. And yet most churches do not address these problems of inaccessibility.
In addition, it is unfortunate that our church leaders still refer to the blind beggars in the Bible as sick or ill, especially during ceremonies to anoint the sick. Blindness may have been seen as an infirmity in biblical times, but today blindness and visual impairment are not viewed as illnesses. This story, and others like it in the Bible, is about faith. Most people with disabilities are not suffering, but accepting lives of challenge with the emphasis on ability. We would like the church to catch up with this notion.
When we speak of the church, we are talking as much about our brothers and sisters in Christ as we are the leadership of our churches. Church is not just a place to go and receive a seed, it is the place where seeds are planted and then should grow. Seeds know what to do; they just need water and sunlight. It isn't rocket science!
When it comes to attending church, the most pressing need for those with vision loss is transportation. Public transportation and related disability van services are often limited on the weekends and do not operate on most holidays. We have found that it is almost impossible to bend the ears of church leaders to try and help solve this dilemma by developing a committee in each parish/church that can organize carpools for those who need rides. Not only would such a program be helpful to its recipients, but it is God's word in motion!
Vision impairment makes it difficult to navigate past pews, chairs and people to receive communion. In many churches, pews are often on an angle, which adds to this mobility nightmare. We don't want to accidentally tip candles over, either. It would be much easier if those with vision loss could sit in the front pews or chairs so that communion could be brought to them, or so moving forward to receive communion would be less cumbersome.
There is really no reason why churches don't have large-print hymnals, and now that braille embossing has become so easy using computerization, lyrics to songs can easily be put into braille as well.
It is often difficult for those with vision loss to strike up a conversation with people in a crowd, since eye contact won't automatically bring them together. It is equally difficult to recognize a person's voice from only a couple of encounters. It is for this reason that it is polite to add your name to a greeting when addressing someone who cannot see. A simple, "Hi, Mary, it's John," will do. Likewise, if you wish to help a person with vision loss navigate, let them take your arm just above the elbow and walk normally, announcing any upcoming steps or stairs and whether they go up or down. There is no need to shout. Our hearing is fine!
People who are blind or visually impaired live normal lives, just like you. And although it might be difficult for you to imagine living life with limited or virtually no sight, we cook, clean, graduate from college, volunteer to help the needy, and even hold down good paying jobs, not to mention learning and using public bus services. You may say this is amazing, but this success requires intelligence, talent and hard work with a little courage mixed in.
It is my belief that God would like everyone to be able to worship comfortably. More attention needs to be given to ways in which worshipping can be shared by all. The people are the church, and we are the people!