Faith Community Hospitality and Inclusion:
Adapting a Church Building and Program
for Staff, Members, Visitors and Others Who Are Blind or Have Low Vision
In this article, we present suggestions to guide your initial awareness and planning. Consult the ADA/ABA Accessibility Guidelines and state and local building codes before beginning construction or remodeling projects. We also suggest that you involve congregation or community members who have low vision or are blind from the beginning of any projects.
Getting to the building:
Entrance and hallways:
- Include public transportation information (e.g. which bus line and bus stop) when providing directions on the church web site.
- Offer rides to all congregational events, and include persons with low vision in car pools to outside events and meetings.
- Make sure there are detectable edges (change of texture, e.g. from cement to grass) to sidewalks or other pathways so that a person using a cane can use the edges for orientation.
- Keep sidewalks in level and in good repair to avoid tripping hazards.
- Keep branches over sidewalks trimmed to 80 inches, and flowers and bushes cut back so they don't protrude onto the walkway.
- Use tactile changes in walkway surface ("truncated cones" is the standard) to warn that a pathway enters a driveway, street, or parking lot, and to mark approaches to stairways or other hazards.
- All obstacles should be cane-detectable; protruding obstacles need a low warning barrier (maximum 27 inches high) that someone using a cane will encounter before they come to the danger.
- Place a level, flat, beveled edge mat in front of the entrance door, extending the width of the door swing area, to make it easier for someone using a cane to locate the door.
- Consider hanging a wind chime next to most accessible entrance door, which should be as close to the public transportation drop off area as possible.
- Use color contrast between the door and the building, and have a light near the door.
- Door knobs on doors leading to unsafe areas (e.g. non-public stairwells, boiler rooms) should be marked with textured tape, available at hardware stores.
- Glass doors need visible decals or other contrasting material at chest and face height for safety, and need good frame color contrast.
- Post a greeter/ door opener for all events including worship, and train greeters on how to orient persons with low vision or who are blind to the building. If the greeter cannot leave the doorway, have other volunteer guides available.
- Have an embossed brailled or tactual (tactile) building map or a 3-dimensional tactile model of the building and grounds available to help the person gain an overview of the building.
- Have someone who uses Braille post Braille labels on the building directory and on room door signs.
- Room door signs should be next to the door frame, with the characters between 48 and 60 inches above the floor.
- Obtain raised number tactile signs with good visual contrast for persons with low vision.
- Use contrast as much as possible, e.g. between door knob and door; door frame, door and wall; floor and wall; wall and handrail; and light switch and wall.
- Keep floor surface to a single color if possible; a large dark square can be perceived as a step or hole and become a tripping hazard.
- Keep hallways clear of clutter and keep consistent pathways open and available.
- Use both color and tactile contrast for hazards, e.g. mark the leading edge of the top step (or all steps) of a stairway with a wide strip of a contrasting color and texture.
Media and Education:
- Have Braille copies of The United Methodist Hymnal and The Faith We Sing; available from Cokesbury); remove pages for the songs to be sung that day and place into a notebook for individual use.
- Find a source (many are free) to transcribe the order of worship/ bulletin into Braille, even or especially if the congregation follows the order of worship, responses, and songs on a screen in the front of the sanctuary.
- Prepare a number of large print bulletins using the office photocopier zoom feature and larger paper to achieve the equivalent of Arial 18 point font size. Use black ink on a white or nearly white background for best visual contrast.
- If the sanctuary lighting is low, consider offering a large print bulletin with word to the hymns in a 3 ring binder with a book light attached.
- Describe anything that is presented visually so that those who cannot see know what is being talked about, e.g. projected photos, objects shown during the children's time, etc. Read aloud any projected quotes or captions.
- In a liturgy, when possible read the congregational response first and have the congregation repeat the response after the speaker.
- Give verbal directions for congregational movement; tell people when to stand and when to be seated, when to join in the singing, etc. rather than just using hand motions for this.
- Invite persons who are blind or have low vision to help lead worship
Communication and Etiquette: (from "Communication and Etiquette with Persons with Disabilities" by C. Shepard, W. Hankamer, and D. Greenstein.
- Offer the newsletter and other material from the church in alternate format, e.g. read and recorded on tape or CD, if requested.
- Provide large print handouts if requested or if event is open to the public with no prior registration required; provide Braille handouts if requested.
- Read aloud anything written on a white board, flip chart, or smart board.
- When breaking into small groups, identify a "reader" in each group to read instructions and other assignments to those who can't read them.
- Offer the services of a note-taker when appropriate.
- When creating Power Point presentations, pick an easily read font and use a minimum 24 point; use light text on a dark background, and 5-7 bullets per slide.
- Keep classroom layout consistent or orient the blind person to the changes each time they are made. During a session have class members avoid creating tripping hazards, e.g. large handbags placed in the walking space, chairs not placed back under the table.
- Incorporate interesting textures and shapes into children's classrooms to encourage exploration and movement. Avoid sharp corners and other hazards. Plan an environment and curriculum that stimulates all of the senses.
- Provide good room and task lighting; avoid placing a leader/ speaker directly in front of windows or other bright light which would create a glare.
- Label supply shelves so everyone puts things back in the same place.
- Follow web accessibility standards, including the labeling of any photos or graphics with a description. (See article on Website Accessibility.)
- Stock games that can be played by persons with low vision in the church game collection, e.g. raised dot dominoes, tactile chess set with recessed squares and pegs under each piece to keep pieces from sliding.
- When choosing movies and videos, select those that are audio described.
Interacting with a person who uses a guide dog (submitted by E. Pridmore)
- Identify yourself when approaching the person and say where you are standing in relation to that person. (e.g., "Hello, I am John, standing on your left.") Say the person's name, if you know it, so he or she realizes you are speaking to them.
- Don't assume the person cannot see you at all.
- Use a natural conversational volume and an ordinary tone of voice.
- When speaking to a blind person, make an effort to be verbally descriptive. Instead of saying "over there" or "this way," try to give a more detailed picture of things, such as "thirty paces in front of you" or "turn right where the carpet ends."
- Don't touch a person with low vision or no vision (blind or deaf-blind), without warning unless it is an emergency. If you see someone about to encounter a dangerous situation, be calm and clear about your warning. For example, if the person is about to bump into a pole, calmly and clearly call out, "Wait there for a moment; there is a pole in front of you."
- Never hold the arm of the person while walking. Let the person hold your arm (bend your arm and let the person hold your elbow). This will allow the person to walk slightly behind you and the motion of your body will indicate what the person can expect. Offer verbal cues as to what is ahead when you approach steps, curbs, escalators, or doors.
- Ask the individual if help is needed and how you can best give that help. For example, offer to describe foods at a potluck and assist the person to fill his or her plate.
- During a conversation, give verbal feedback to let the person know you are listening. He or she may not be able to see the expression on your face.
- Ask if the person wants you to describe who is where and what is happening nearby.
- It really is okay to say things like "See you soon." Feel comfortable using everyday words relating to vision, like "look," "see," or "read."
- When you leave, say you are leaving. Never leave a person who has low vision or is blind in an open area, such as the middle of a room. Instead, ask where he or she would like to go, such as the side of the room, to a chair, or to some other landmark, and lead the person there.
- Please don't pet, call out to, or otherwise distract a working Guide Dog. Allow the dog to concentrate and perform for the safety of its blind partner. A Guide Dog in harness is "on duty," even when sitting or lying down.
- If you are in a car, please don't honk the horn or call out directions. Guide Dog handlers listen to traffic flow and other environmental sounds to decide when it's safe to cross a street.
- Please don't feed a Guide Dog. Diet and feeding times are strictly monitored to maintain good health and reliable relieving schedules.
- When orienting the person who is blind to the facility, show them where they can take the dog outdoors when needed.
- Provide a water dish for the Guide Dog if requested. If the handler looks like he or she needs help, offer your assistance and take your cue from their response.
- Taking the harness or leash from the handler can disorient and confuse the team. If you believe someone is in a dangerous situation voice your concern in a calm manner, but do not push, pull or grab the person.
- Speak to the person, not the dog! Some Guide Dog handlers may allow petting, but always ask first. Many folks enjoy introducing their dogs, but if they decline, please respect their wishes.
- Sometimes a Guide Dog will make a mistake, and a correction is necessary to keep up the training. This could be a verbal reprimand or a leash correction. Handlers have been taught the proper and humane training techniques to maintain their dogs' working standards. You may not always hear it, but Guide Dogs get loads of praise when they do the right things.
- Guide Dogs are granted the right of access everywhere the public is allowed. They are allowed into restaurants, offices, churches, hospitals and hotels. They travel on buses, in taxis and airplanes, shop at grocery stores, enjoy amusement parks, movies and concerts.
- The View from Under the Pew is written for children from the perspective of her former guide dog Walter, by Diane Winters Johnson. Published in 2008 by Abingdon, the book is available through Cokesbury.
- Bibles in Braille can be obtained through Braille Bibles and Bibles for the Blind.
- Cokesbury carries a 7 volume loose-leaf notebook style Braille version of The United Methodist Hymnal.
- The Faith We Sing is available in a 3 volume Braille version.
- Sources for Braille label makers (be sure to have someone who reads Braille do any labeling), talking Bibles, Braille board games, Braille speaker phones, tactile labels, etc:
- Independent Living Aids
- Lighthouse International
- Pennies for Puppies through The Seeing Eye is a fund raising project appropriate for church school classes that want to support training of guide dogs.
- Christian Record Services for the Blind has a digital lending library with audio magazines and books available. Learn more about audio description through the American Council of the Blind's Audio Description Project.