By Rev. Leo Yates, Jr.
Observances in October are plentiful: Down Syndrome Awareness Month, Lupus Awareness Month, Global Diversity Awareness Month, and Hallowe’en are just a few. But often overlooked is that October is Blind Awareness Month. Formerly known as Meet the Blind Month, which grew from White Cane Awareness Day on October 15th, the National Federation of the Blind recommends this month-long recognition be one that remembers history, advances equality, and celebrates accomplishments and supports persons who are blind or have vision loss.
As United Methodists, we are called to value all people as being of sacred worth. The Bible has many passages relating to or specifically about persons who are blind, particularly in the gospels. At least one of the Apostles had a visual impairment. While there are instances of healing in a few gospel passages, reading through the lens of disability theology points to needs for reconciliation, inclusion, and equality. In fact, Matthew explicitly states Jesus had compassion toward blind persons (Matt 20:30)--likely because of the isolation and loneliness they faced due to bad theology and neglect. A starting place for biblical application is for Christians to share Jesus’ compassion too, which can begin with learning about persons who are blind or have vision loss (the theme of the month).
It only takes a glance around the sanctuary or virtual space to see the many people with some sort of visual impairment (they’re wearing glasses). If you look closer, persons may be using a magnifying glass, a tablet or iPad camera to zoom in on a handout, or are struggling to see what’s happening around the sanctuary. Recalling John Wesley's concern for medical self-care, a part of this monthly observance can be to raise public awareness about vision and eye health. Common symptoms can be found here. Common eye disorders are found here. Become familiar with the eye disorders, if not for yourself, then for your loved ones. Often considered an invisible disability, eye disorders are not always recognizable unless you have a white cane or Seeing Eye dog.
Ways to observe Blind Awarenss Month in the church setting can include one or more of the following:
- For worship suggestions, visit our page "Liturgy for Blind Equality Achievement Month."
- Visit the UM Committee on Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Ministries web page with resources for Deafblind people.
- Visit the Disability Ministries of the UMC web page "Adapting a Church Building and Program for People who are Blind or have Low Vision."
- Make available large print bulletins one Sunday for everyone (use a minimum of 18-point font)
- Sing hymns written by Fanny J. Crosby, like "Blessed Assurance" and learn more about her from this video or this article, and read about her hymns here.
- Learn more about the images used by some hymns that are problematic for blind people.
- Include a sermon illustration about Fanny J. Crosby or recognize persons with visual impairments such as Harriet Tubman (avoid being condescending).
- Read the thoughts of a blind UM pastor: “In heaven, will a blind man see?” (Kelsey Dallas, Deseret News, March 26, 2016).
- Learn about proper etiquette with blind and low-vision people.
- Remind ushers and greeters to be attentive with persons with visual impairments, offering to guide them to places in the building or to a pew.
- With these tips, survey the Sunday School class rooms or other meeting spaces to see if they’re accommodating for persons who are blind or visually impaired.
- For hybrid or virtual meetings, review the accessibility checklist and best practices to better ensure inclusion.
- Share awareness posts on the church’s social media outlets, such as etiquette for socializing with blind persons and communication tips with Deafblind persons.
- Practice orienting and describing persons and environments; on a Zoom meeting where participants called in, describe yourself (e.g., “My name is Mike, I’m a white male wearing glasses and I’m dressed in a blue polo shirt”).
- Learn to better support persons who are losing their site by reading this general advice by the World Services for the Blind
- Set up a resource table in the narthex or fellowship hall to share pamphlets about the various eye disorders, such as cataracts, glaucoma and others (particularly if your congregation is made up mostly of seniors and older adults).
- Research low vision resources (search by state) to see how your congregation can partner with them.
- Blindness is often used as a metaphor for unrelated conditions—learn more about the problems of such uses.
- Recruit one or more persons who are willing to support the church’s efforts to be better inclusive of ALL people with disabilities (contact Rev. Leo at email@example.com for ideas).
Practice accessibility! Rev. Nancy Webb, a blind, retired elder from the Baltimore-Washington Conference recognizes livestreamed services have become a norm due to COVID. “This is the first time I have really felt excluded from the church because I’m missing all the information on the slides and on the screen and no one shares what’s on them,” said Webb. Mary Harris, a Deaf ministry coordinator in the Florida Annual Conference shares that a Deafblind parishioner rarely comes to church because there are not many persons who can communicate with him. “We encourage him to come, but he’d rather stay home.” These are breakdowns in how we do church. Persons who are blind or have vision loss should not be an afterthought, but a forethought. It takes remembering this, but more importantly, being in relationship with them.
There will come a time where we won’t need monthly observances because churches and communities are fully sensitized, have cultural humility, and other oriented. However, we are not there yet. Until then, it’s good to have these reminders so we too can see like Jesus and see others, particularly our siblings who are blind or have vision loss.
* Rev. Leo Yates is a deacon in full connection serving as the Accessibility and Inclusion Coordinator in the Baltimore-Washington Conference. For comments, questions, or consultation, contact him at LYates@bwcumc.org.