Understanding Advocacy and Access for People Who Are Blind or Have Low Vision

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This article is part of the series: How to Create Welcoming Spaces for People Who Are Blind or Have Low Vision.  We have collaborated with our friends at the RCA on their online platform, Faithward

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The full inclusion of people who are blind or have low vision often requires alternative formats or special accommodations. However, people are often hesitant to bring their needs before their church or to advocate for themselves. Outlined in this article are some of those barriers, presented with the hope of creating a warmer reception within churches. Included here, too, are ways of advocating for people who are blind or have low vision, whether you are one who needs bolstering to self-advocate or whether you are advocating on behalf of someone else.

Why might a person who is blind or has low vision fear advocating for themselves in a church setting? 

  • They may be afraid to express their needs to potentially unsupportive family members or people in the congregation. There may be disagreement even among other people  who are blind or have low vision in the person’s own church if a particular request is worth pursuing. (“Why would you challenge the authority of the church?”)
  • Many times a person may be the only one in their church who is blind or has low vision, and the person’s family and church considers them a minority for whom resources should not be spent on a particular accommodation.
  • They may be afraid to ask for a financial commitment from their church when the church already has other financial needs. Furthermore, churches will often not pursue full accessibility if it is not legally required.
  • A person may not want to be singled out and receive “unnecessary” attention. If the person is willing to participate in activities they’re confident in, though, other sighted people would get to know them as a person first, not by their abilities or disabilities first. People want to be known for who they are and what they do, not what they cannot do.
  • The church may not have the knowledge and/or the resources to fulfill the person’s need. Sometimes the church will try to fulfill the need in their own way, which ultimately may not be helpful and may cause the church not to listen to the person in the future because of the extra work and trouble.
  • A person may not even know what to advocate for. In this case, conversations with agencies, organizations, and other people who are blind or have low vision can be helpful.
  • The person may be afraid to confront their partial or complete loss of vision. This may be a larger issue of how this person views disability as a whole. The person may know they are blind or have low vision but do not want to label the loss of vision as a disability for fear of pity from others, or because disabilities in the Bible are often referenced only in the context of the disability miraculously disappearing.

How should people advocate for their needs?

Note: This list is written to address people who are blind or have low vision and who need to advocate for themselves and their particular needs. Of course, others are welcome and encouraged to advocate as well.

  • When making a request for accommodation, be confident in what you are asking for and why/how this accommodation will help you better participate in the life of the church. 
    • Present yourself as a full person, without diminishing your own need or desire to participate. 
    • If your request involves technology, know your disability well enough to know what technology will be most helpful because the church will not know.
  • Be constructive when making your request. You are less likely to be successful if you appear demanding, accusatory, pitiful, or resistant.
  • If your church lacks knowledge and/or resources about how to accommodate your request, ask if you can be involved in the process. For example, say, “I’d love to be involved with figuring out an accommodation, but I need your help.”
  • Be reasonable with your request. 
    • Be confident that you will actually use the accommodation, particularly if it is expensive.
    • Consider what would benefit the greatest number of people, not just you. 
    • Don’t ask for the most expensive model of a piece of technology if a more reasonable request will do. At the same time, do not sell yourself short with an unsatisfying solution. 
  • Know both what you need and also what you can already do.
  • Reinforce that the accommodation gives you access and enhances your ability to participate on an equal basis with others. Draw from and/or offer to share about the “kingdom model” of disability, as outlined in this forthcoming article from the Journal of Disability and Religion.
    • The kingdom model of disability differs from the medical model (e.g. disability is a problem to be fixed) or the social model (e.g. civil rights and social justice).
    • This kingdom model is reflected in the motto of CRCNA and RCA Disability Concerns: “Everybody belongs, everybody serves.”
    • You can say, “Removing barriers allows me to use the gifts God has given not just to me but to everybody.”
    • Legal requirements are only meant to be a base-level accommodation. We are called to follow the spirit of the law (acting for the right reasons), rather than the letter of the law (doing the bare minimum).

Remember: when you advocate for yourself, you also advocate for other people in the congregation (and even those who are not yet in the church) who may need the same things in the future.

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