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For her BA in Christian Ministries at Steinbach (Man.) Bible College, Helena Fehr completed a practicum with the Mennonite Brethren Church of Manitoba, researching accessibility and accommodations for people with disabilities in our churches.
The MB Herald asked the member of South Park MB, Altona, Man., who was born fully blind, to share her experience in, and advice for, churches.
What barriers do you face in attending church?
I feel like I don’t really know the people. Before and after the service, there are hundreds of conversations going on at the same time. Contrary to the myth about blind people having such good memories, I won’t always remember the person’s name or recognize them by their voice.
On the surface, people at church and I don’t have a lot in common. Most are married and have children, even grandchildren; they have jobs, go camping or on trips. I live alone and stay home on my computers and Audible books. And there isn’t a lot of time at church to figure out what we do have in common.
How can churches remedy this so blind people feel more welcome?
We need to be more intentional about getting to know each other.
We may need to reintroduce ourselves many times or go somewhere where we can sit down and chat – which will take effort on both our parts.
Ask as many questions as it takes, no matter how silly they sound. It’s less awkward if we admit when we don’t know something rather than pretending.
What about practical things that would make church a better experience?
It would help if printed materials were made available in alternative formats. (For example, emailing the bulletin and song lyrics allows people to expand the font size or listen to the words on their phone or tablet.)
Many blind people have other disabilities which prevent them from getting secondary education or a job. If the church could help raise funds for the assistive equipment and software their members with disabilities need, that would mean a lot.
Churches could consider becoming a free access point for Aira or purchasing the app for individuals. Aira agents see a blind person’s surroundings for them through their cellphone camera or smart glasses to help them navigate buildings, arrange transportation, and interact with others.
Providing transportation to and from church would also help. Taxis and Handi-Transit services, if they are available at all, are expensive and inconvenient. It’s nice to sit in church without worrying how one is going to get back home.
In the end, finding out what each person needs by asking them these kinds of questions will help the most.
What do you wish the church understood about the experience of being blind?
I don’t want them to be afraid of me. I have a different way of getting to know people than they do, but that doesn’t mean I can’t get to know them at all.
And it’s okay with me that I’m blind. I’ve been this way all my life. It’s just who I am, with my Fire Stick and Alexas and VoiceOver – stuff they might not have a clue about, any more than I have a clue about colours or driving or what dresses go with what shoes.
We can all walk into each other’s worlds, learn about each other’s worlds, and make jokes about ourselves. When we get over the awkwardness and stop being afraid of it, we learn that it’s not so bad.
We might find that I can help the church use technology, and I bet I could use some help with hair and makeup – and I could use the company too.
Then it’s not just one person doing all the giving or one person making all the effort. We all win something, and nobody really has anything to lose.