My experiences with low vision have greatly influenced how I see the world (pun intended). Because of my vocation, I have begun to consider how people with low vision or no vision experience worship.
In talking with the team at Vision Rehabilitation Services in Smyrna, Georgia, I learned of some of their conversations. The leading cause of vision loss right now in the United States is macular degeneration. While this is primarily a disease that effects older people, it should not keep us from ministry for them and ministry with them. Many of these people who have sought help from V.R.S. have indicated how important their church experience is to their lives. More to the point, they want to be able to continue in ministry!
Like me, there are others whose lives have been impacted by various other causes that have taken some or all of their vision. An estimated 19 million in the USA have problems seeing that cannot be corrected with glasses or contacts. While there are a multitude of other impairments effecting people, churches can do some practical things to reach out and care for these people. Here are seven observations I have made recently.
1. Make Large Print Hymnals and Bibles Available.
This simple addition to a sanctuary can make a world of difference. Keep them stocked in a central location in the worship space or lobby. Have it printed in a large font in the bulletin that “Large Print Hymnals are available” and make sure you state where they are and/or who to ask.
2. Closer Seating.
This may not be easy to do but would certainly be a welcome addition for those with vision problems. Even where I sit on Sunday mornings, I can barely make out faces of the minister preaching or the choir singing. Services where communion is celebrated can be difficult with walking. The shorter the distance for walking is often for the better.
3. Thirty Point Font (or larger) on Screen.
Guy Kawasaki has long recommended taking the age of the oldest person in the room and dividing that age in half to determine the font size for a Powerpoint Presentation.
Thirty Point Font is the minimum size one should use to project text on Sunday morning. No argument from me.
4. High Contrast Colors on Screen and Signage.
Moving backgrounds, detailed images and multi-colored slides can be difficult to read even with good vision. Those in higher education and technology say, “yellow is the color of learning.” In other words, yellow or white text on dark, simple backgrounds is best for songs & sermon notes. Apply this same principle around the church campus for signage too.
5. Transportation to Church.
Many churches do provide bus or van transportation from nursing homes on Sunday mornings. Not all with visual impairment are in long-term care facilities. Considering reaching out to the larger congregation with a carpool could make a huge impact.
6. Provide Prayer, Healing Services and Caring Theology.
Jesus provided a powerful ministry of healing that was taken up the Apostles. Through the centuries, people have experienced healing in the name of Jesus Christ. Churches need to not shy away from offering prayers and services of healing. We also need to wrestle with the reality that God does not always heal according to our desire or design. We need not feel guilty as the Church when this occurs nor should we heap blame on those who come to us even as we try to understand what God is up to in a person's life.
7. Understanding and Empathy.
Low or lost vision can be very embarrassing. With my vision, just because I look in your general direction does not mean that I recognize you or see you, especially at a distance. Older people with macular degeneration have expressed concern that friends have interpreted their lack of recognition as being “uppity” or “snobs.” What does this say about the church if our first response is offense?
I regularly have to break eye contact in order to shake a person’s hand. I fear going up and down steps wearing my clergy robe each week in the chancel for fear of missing a step. I used to love large crowds. Now I get very uncomfortable in very small crowds so Sunday mornings can be tough for me. I have just about 50% of my vision. Try imagining the difficulties of dealing with even less.
The story told in Luke 5:17-26 regarding Jesus, the paralyzed man and his four friends can tell many different stories. It is about forgiveness and healing as well as about faith. It also expresses the love of four friends for a fifth. They were willing to go all out to help. But I wonder too, was this a common occurrence for these friends? Did they regularly drop by and literally, pick-up their pal to go the market or temple worship?
I also note that the paralyzed man’s disability was also quite visible. People with vision loss, like myself, are not always so easy to recognize. We make our way and try to remain independent as much as possible. The line between humility and humiliation in these cases is a very thin line. One reflects a broken heart before God. The other reflects a broken spirit. The people of God have the Good News both need to hear if only we’ll look deeper and go into the world where people are blind in both spirit and body.