How accessible are churches and other places of worship?
I’m not just talking about physical access, for all that lifts and ramps can be very important for those, like me, who have mobility problems. I’m talking about whether, once inside those places of worship, you can participate in the activities that go on there alongside able-bodied people.
I’m talking about inclusion.
One important area of my life is church. What I’m going to say may apply to places of worship of many faiths but I can only speak from my own experience here.
An important element of the Christian faith is the written word. If you happen to have a printed bible handy, just look and see how many pages it contains. It’s probably a single volume with around 900 pages. Now let me tell you about my braille bible. The New Testament alone is in five very thick braille volumes. I do not possess the entire Old Testament (I have a mere thirty volumes) because in my previous house I had nowhere to put it all. I could probably find space in my current home but a braille bible is so huge, I would still have to store it in various different parts of the house.
(An aside: years ago when I worked at the RNIB braille production unit in Goswell Road, we used to gather round a tea trolley twice a day for a break. Many people have never experienced this delightfully old-fashioned custom. It was a great opportunity to chat and we would regularly muse on various issues relating to braille and sight loss. I remember one day that we had a discussion about how much space you would need for the Gideons to leave a braille bible as well as a print bible in every hotel room. We envisaged guests having to climb over vast piles of books in order to get into bed!)
But, yes, braille bibles are really big and cumbersome, multi-volume works. You can imagine the problems this causes when I want to take a bible with me to church. When I attend bible study, I only take the appropriate volume along with me. When I take my turn on the reading rota and read in the service, I copy the reading out beforehand and just take the braille print-out with me. This is far preferable to heaving a large book onto the lectern.
Of course, this kind of participation can only happen if there is good communication. I need to know the bible passage well in advance.
I remember the first time I read the lesson at my current church. I was solemnly escorted to the lectern on the platform. It took me a while to get there! (These days I read from a lectern on the floor of the worship area.) Once I was at the lectern, no one could see me at all, because I am so short. (Neither I nor my escort realised there was a step to stand on for just such occasions.) The congregation knew I couldn’t read a print bible, so when they heard a disembodied voice ringing round the room, many of them assumed, I discovered later, that I was reciting the reading from memory! The illusion was shattered when I started reading from the lower lectern, however, because everyone could see that I actually had a sheet of paper with me.
That’s a little about the challenges of bible reading for the visually impaired, but what about hymn books?
Many churches these days no longer use hymn books, instead projecting the words of the songs onto large screens. This solves some problems but creates new ones. It makes it easier to introduce new songs and does away with the business of handing out hymn books and tidying them away at the end of the service. Not everyone can read ordinary print, and large-print hymn books can be heavy and unwieldy, especially for elderly people with arthritic hands. The use of screens can help solve these problems and also leaves people free to raise their arms or clap their hands, if they are worshiping in churches where such practices are the norm.
The words on the screens still have to be big enough for everyone to read, of course, and the screens have to be positioned so that everyone can see them. If they are not raised sufficiently high, you may not be able to see them if you are behind someone who is much taller than you are. My brother-in-law tells me that in his church, there was a lady with bad arthritis in her neck for whom it was very painful to raise her head to look up at words on a screen. You have to choose your text and background colours carefully, too, because some combinations are very hard to read.
Frankly, though, if you are visually impaired, screens are not much help.
In our church, we have a printed order of service which is also projected on a big screen at the front. This is where I am very lucky. Not only can I read braille but I have the means of braille production. I am sent an electronic copy of the service in advance and I can braille it during the week, along with the hymns, so that I can fully participate in the service on Sunday. I do possess a braille hymn book but it is in eleven volumes so I prefer to copy out the hymns and take single sheets. I have a large collection by now so often don’t have to braille any new ones.
My ability to braille documents enables me not only to take my place on the reading rota but also to lead bible studies and chair meetings. As I have mentioned in this blog before, braille is essential for these activities. I can braille notes for a bible study and I have the agenda, minutes and any relevant reports literally at my finger-tips in meetings.
Whilst I am pleased to be able to play my part in church life – and, with access to braille and assistance from fellow church-goers, I hope to continue to do so for many years to come – I am aware that not everyone is so fortunate. What about those older people who, when they can no longer see the screen or read the admittedly large-print order of service, find themselves unable to join in?
I don’t think there are any easy answers to these questions but we should keep asking them, always making sure we consult those most keenly affected. We need to listen carefully to their answers.