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Your Church & visually impaired people

"Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame." Luke 14:21

In the United Kingdom, the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 has been fully implemented since October 2004. This has given disabled people important rights of access to everyday services that others take for granted. The Act covers all people who have long-term physical or mental impairments. Places of worship must comply with this legislation as churches are classed as 'service providers' within the terms of the DDA.

Churches in the United Kingdom continue to make huge strides in improving accessibility for disabled people, in their buildings, church life, resources and facilities. There is still a long way to go. Whilst there is considerable willingness to make the Act work, there is still a lot of confusion on how best to apply it. Here are some suggestions to further improve access for visually impaired people.

  1. Some statistics
  2. Meeting people with sight loss
  3. Assisting as a sighted guide
  4. Accessible Information
  5. Church services
  6. Mid-week fellowship
  7. Church transport
  8. Church websites
  9. Digital Projector Units

1. Some statistics

In the United Kingdom, there are more than two million people with serious sight loss. This covers a wide range of sight impairment; from those who find great difficulty in reading newsprint or recognising faces, to others who have no sight at all. One million of these disabled people have been diagnosed by specialist eye doctors, as either blind or partially sighted and have made the choice to be registered. It is believed that another one million have similar problems but never seek registration. Sight loss is one of the commonest forms of disability.

2. Meeting people with sight loss

Talk to visually impaired people in the same way as everyone else. They are normal people, except that they have impaired sight. Always introduce yourself by giving your name and use their name in your greeting. This way, they will know that you are speaking to them and there is no confusion about your identity. If you do not know their name, gently touch them on the arm to draw their attention. Finally, when you walk away, let them know you are leaving. Then they will not be made to feel foolish by continuing to speak into an empty space.

3. Assisting as a sighted guide

If you are asked to act as a sighted guide, it is easy to accomplish. Offer your upper arm and ask your charge to hold it by their hand. Then, gently bring your arm close to your side and keep it there. When you do this, your visually impaired companion will know when you are turning left or right. You will also be walking slightly ahead of the person you are guiding, so there is less chance of you pushing them into ongoing traffic or obstacles. Let your charge know where you are taking them, and inform them when you are about to go through doors, up or down steps, or on or off pavements. Listen to his or her suggestions and give them a chance to deal with things in their own time. If you offer them a seat, always place their hand on the seat back and carefully explain the seating arrangements. This goes a long way towards preventing them missing their seating and falling onto the floor.

4. Accessible information

Most churches have people in their congregation who are visually impaired. Many of them will benefit from suitably prepared information. Since 1999, it has been the legal responsibility of churches to meet the reasonable information needs of people with sight loss. Because churches are classed as 'service providers' they have similar obligations as business and commerce. There is plenty of practical advice on providing usable information for visually impaired people on the website of the RNIB See it Right Campaign

5. Church services

Most church services have a high dependence upon written information and visual displays. In suitable light conditions, many people with sight problems can read high-contrast text from a good quality digital projector (DPU), but this does not apply to everyone. Especially those who have impaired central vision or are totally blind. There are also problems with visual prompts in sermons, worship and sacramental acts. For many blind and partially sighted people, the love of Jesus is often missed in the struggle to make sense of inadequate information. Choices in practical assistance, spoken commentaries, large print books, clear digital video displays and Braille reading material will enable many people with sight loss to feel fulfilled and valued.

Good lighting is important not only to visually impaired people, but also those who have a hearing problem. A big grumble from everyone is light from windows which are directly behind the person who is speaking. Everyone with reasonable sight needs to be able to read the lips and body language of those in front of them, for this is a large part of communication.

"If your church does an audio recording of your Sunday service for distribution to those at home, why not add the church notices at the end and everyone will know what is going on. This will be very helpful to blind and partially sighted people. Other people with reading difficulties will appreciate it too." Mike Townsend, Torch Trust for the Blind.

6. Mid-week fellowship

Visually impaired churchgoers need to feel that they are included into their church community. That they are considered to have the same value as other members of the congregation and their gifts and talents are appreciated. Their everyday walk with Jesus is a vital source of strength and hope to them. This will only flourish with adequate spiritual food, good fellowship and responsibilities. If your church has a mid-week home group or a Bible study, make sure that people with sight loss are invited. If need be, provide transport, to and from the venue. Likewise, invite them to help with church work, management or church ministries. Many visually impaired people are very active in their local churches. If there is a need for large print or Braille Bible resources, Christian talking books or devotional material, contact the Torch Trust for the Blind

"Why not consider hosting a home group in the house of a disabled person. It makes sense, for all of their facilities are close to hand, and there are no transport problems." Rob Davies, Echurch-UK.

Make sure that all blind and partially sighted people have a list of important church telephone numbers and events, and that they are able to read or listen to it. An audio tape, regularly updated, is often a good idea.

An increasing number of visually impaired people have email. Where they have, church notices, prayer sheets and minutes of church meetings are being provided by this medium. Either as Word or accessible PDF attachments.

We continue to hear about blind and partially sighted people being excluded from church social events. In a minority of cases there has been deliberate discrimination, but on most occasions it has been caused by misunderstanding of the needs of a person with poor sight.

If you have blind and partially sighted people in your congregation always inform them if an event is to take place. Often they miss out, because they are not able to read printed notices. They are quite capable of making their own mind up, if it is a trip to a cinema, a quiz evening, a visit to a stately home or a sports event. They may well enjoy it immensely and most popular venues provide audio description to add to the experience. Your local blind association will be able to further advise you on guiding visually impaired people.

7. Church transport

Reliable church transport is much appreciated by visually impaired people. They need to have a contact telephone number to alert someone when problems arise, or to make future bookings. When collecting visually impaired passengers, ask drivers to go to the house and knock on the door. Then introduce themselves by name and state their purpose. Blind people have to be sure of their security.

If there is a need, drivers should guide visually impaired people to a vehicle by allowing them to take an arm. When they reach the vehicle, drivers should carefully open the door themselves. After this, they should offer to guide the hand of whoever is in their care to a safe part of the vehicle entrance. They must be sure to protect the head of their passengers as they enter the doorway. Following this, they may need assistance with seat belts. When the vehicle reaches its destination, drivers must not allow people with sight problems to open vehicle doors themselves. They may accidentally open them into the path of moving traffic or pedestrians. The driver must do this himself, then help his passengers out of the vehicle and into a safe place in the church building,

8. Church websites

'An accessible website is a staggering 35% easier to use for every visitor!' DRC research 2004

An increasing number of blind, partially sighted and blind-deaf people access the Internet from work, educational establishments or home. Some use high contrast visual screens, others audio screen readers or computerised braille displays. Many church web sites are rendered inaccessible by poor web design. It is fairly easy to put this right and still have attractive web pages.

Julie Howell, Digital Policy Development Officer at RNIB says: "When a little thought is put into the design of web sites many more people will be able to use them, including the UK's 2 million blind and partially sighted people. For more information visit the RNIB's Web Access Centre.

9. Digital Projector Units

An increasing number of churches now use Digital Projector Units (DPU's). When they are used wisely they offer improved access to a wide range of disability groups. This includes a considerable number of those people with poor sight.

Always use a dark background with off white text to provide a good contrast. Do not fill the whole screen with text. To improve concentration, display around five lines of text at the top of the screen. Do not scroll the text, but refresh it with the next five lines.

Never use background images with text. If you need an image, put it below the words. It is very difficult to read words over a background image. Getting it right will improve access to those who have poor concentration, dyslexia, poor sight and everyone else.

Establishing the text size to be used, depends on the size of the worship area. Generally speaking, 20 pt Arial, is a good size to begin with. Ask a few people with low sight for their opinion, both at the front and the back of the room. If the text is too large, it will slow down reading speed, if it is too small, many people will struggle to read it.

Good colour contrast, with a dark background and light text, may well need to be improved by experience. Never use a light background, because it causes glare in the eyes of many people with poor sight.

Some churches have had to fit blinds over one or two windows, to prevent glare from bright sunlight, affecting the readability of the screen.

As most DPU’s are operated by different people each week, it is important to establish a “house style” to keep to a high standard of accessibility. Information being provided on the screen, in a public service, must be accessible within the terms of the Disability Discrimination Act, 1995.

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