Wednesday, April 27, 2011

So You've Got a Blind Person in your Church

(This is a guest post from my friend Marda, who shares her experiences teaching the Bible to people with physical and intellectual difficulties.  We have much to learn! -- Glenn)

So You've Got a Blind Person in your Church

What to do?  Blindness!  It's always one of those disabilities that rank
high on the list of what non-disabled people think would be the worst
disability to happen to them.  That's probably because so much of what
sighted people do, from academic pursuits to transportation and many other
things,  rely upon sight, sometimes to the exclusion of other senses.  So
first, let me put a different spin on things.

 Good Things About being Blind

1. You can go to parties and never have to be the designated driver.

2. When the power goes out, you have the power!

3.  Any time, light or dark, you can read provided there is enough Braille

4.  Your husband doesn't care if you don't put makeup on, assuming he is
also blind which isn't always the case.

5.  You get to know the person before worrying about the outward

6. If you happen to slip up and go out with a pair of unmatched shoes on,
you can just say they're all the rage and you have another pair just like
them at home.

7. If you have a guide dog, you can get away with going around all of the
people and cutting to the front of the line because that's where your dog is
leading you and most people will just let you pass.

8. You never have to be responsible for whatever responsibilities  the
people in those exit rows in airplanes have to do.

9. If you can't read the hymnal, nobody worries if you don't know all of the

10.  Generally, you're not called on to read Scripture in Bible study.

All right.  That's the humor for this time.  Now let's get to the serious
stuff.  How can you help a blind person who comes to your church or Sunday
school class?

1. Greet the person (by name if you know it) with a smile.  It shows in your
voice.  Identify yourself even if you have spoken to the person before.  It
takes a while for someone to recognize your voice and that varies with each
person.  When they've got it, they'll start answering you back by name.

2.  If a person appears to be wandering around unsure of their way, walk up
and ask if they need help.  Some will be too proud if you ask that way so
sometimes the more tactful approach would be to say something like, "I'm
going into the sanctuary.  May I show you to a seat?"

3.  If the person accepts your offer of help, do not grab him/her by the
elbow, belt loop, underarm or shoulder.  Some tall people (like my husband)
prefer to be guided with a hand on the shoulder.  The conventional way is to
use something simple called "sighted guide technique".  This form of
guidance is probably the safest and most dignified in many respects.  The
way to do it is to offer your arm, (which one depends on whether the person
is using a dog or cane) and walk half a step in front of the person while
they lightly hold your arm.  This way, they can follow your body movements
and know when you change direction, go up or down stairs and so on.  If you
know the person is newly blind, give more verbal direction, like "step down"
or "we're turning right" but the person walking with you will quickly tell
you if you are giving too much verbal information for them.

4.  Never, ever do the following:
A. Grab the other end of the person's cane and drag him/her around by it.
B. Grab any part of a guide dog, especially the harness, and attempt to lead
that way.  If the person has a guide dog, ask if it is best for the dog to
follow or for the person to drop the harness handle and hold the leash in
one hand while you do sighted guide with the other.

5.  When doing sighted guide and showing someone to a seat, it is a
considerate thing to put the person's hand on the back or seat of the chair
so it can be more easily located.

6.  When you have been talking to a blind person or group of blind people
and leave them for any reason, let them know you're leaving even if it's
just to run across the room to speak to someone else.  Believe me, it's no
fun talking to the air!

7.  Be specific in your directions.  "There's a seat over there," is not
helpful.  "There's an empty chair two chairs to your right." is more precise
and less likely to create confusion.

8.  If you are at a social event which involves eating, like a church supper
or picnic, ask the person whether he/she would like to go through the line
or if they would prefer you to bring a plate to them.  Many people want to
go through the line and make sure they find out about every dish and get
what they want.  Some, however, feel uncomfortable doing that and would
rather have you tell them what the food is and not have to try to balance a
plate, cup, silverware or other such things with a cane or dog and still go
sighted guide.  When you sit down to eat, ask if the person would like to be
shown where the food is on the plate.  A common practice is to treat the
plate like the face of a clock.  So it would go something like, "Your meat
is at twelve, mashed potatoes at three, carrots at six, salad at nine etc.
Some people, especially at pot luck suppers where there are a lot of
different dishes and sampling anything you like is the order of the day,
will use more than just the main four points of the clock.  I've known
people who will say, "There's some sort of rice casserole at eight-thirty,
three bean salad is at eleven etc.  You may not need to do this at all or
the person might like just a general idea of where the food is on the plate.

9.  If you are directing the person to a rest room and you tell them where
things like the sink and toilet are inside, don't forget the toilet paper!
I'm not kidding.  That stuff is the hardest thing to find in a restroom.
Sometimes it's on the left.  Sometimes it's on the right.  Sometimes it's
straight across from the throne and sometimes it's not even on a holder at
all but is perched on the back of the toilet tank!
Some other things you may want to point out are things like whether there is
a blow dryer for the hands or paper towels above (the middle, left or right)
sink, if there is a "handicapped" stall (helpful if the person has a large
guide dog) and which stall it is.

10.  Overwhelmed yet?  Please don't be.  It's not as hard as it looks.  You
don't have to tackle every situation at once.  There will be others to help
and often those to whom you are ministering will give you the cues.  Treat
them with the respect with which you'd like to be treated.  Don't talk about
a blind person as if they're not there.  Chances are they're not deaf.  If
you make a mistake telling someone left instead of right (which is easy to
do if you're facing a person) well, you're human.

Though I have tried to keep this article in a humorous tone, there really
are some things that will turn a blind person off the minute you say them.
One is something like "Oh, you're so lucky to be blind.  You don't have to
see all of the evil in the world."  Believe me, I've known plenty of evil in
this world.  Also, don't assume that just because someone is blind, that
person will automatically have deep spiritual insight.  We're people just
like you and insight varies and has little to do with whether or not a
person is blind.

I hope the foregoing information has been helpful in giving you some
specific ideas about interacting with blind and visually impaired people.
There will be more issues addressed in future articles about ministering to
this population as well as to those with other disabilities. 

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