Here’s the thing. That isn’t true. The church where I grew up is a tremendously welcoming place full of great people who really shaped my life. They just didn’t know that there was a problem.
Unfortunately, this is true of most American churches. Unlike a business corporation, there aren’t diversity seminars (I have never even heard a sermon about disabilities), and unlike the internet, there aren’t accessibility laws. Churches might be wheelchair accessible because of the law, but there is no law governing making videos played live captioned, and there shouldn’t have to be.
Contrary to common assumption, lips in videos are not the same as real life. I can lipread pretty well in real life (although I’m exhausted after a 40 min sermon, so there’s a cap on how long of a service we can commit to), but I cannot lipread a video. No matter how big or how loud, it still is a flat surface, often with lips not visible.
Here’s the thing. It’s not just a deaf girl like me who needs those captions. It is also the older people who are losing their hearing, and either don’t know it, or are far too shy to ever speak up. They will miss the words of that video you are using to speak about Jesus, and they will never tell you because they think that would be rude. What a shame if a family finally manages to get anti-Church grandpa to Christmas Eve service, but he misses a message that would have really spoken to his heart because they used a video rather than a speaker?
It’s also those who don’t have English as a first language. If they are going to an English-speaking church, they probably understand English pretty well, but I have to think that they too will get far more out of a video if they have the English words to look at in addition to listening what the people said.
And the kicker is this – if a video is captioned, it will be more accessible to all of these people than a regular speaker. Instead of your message being lost to part of the congregation, it will be amplified!
I did quite a bit with film over the years, and I know full well how powerful a short film can be, and why it has been so embraced by the Evangelical Church. But I really don’t think Jesus would be too keen about us using a form of communication that is clearly not accessible to everyone listening to him, particularly when there are some pretty simple fixes.
So let’s talk about how you can still have those videos, and let their truths speak to everyone this holiday season.
#1 – it may seem easiest to pick a video without spoken words. Silent films are powerful, and can draw a viewer in even more than one with narration or dialogue. The problem with this method is that it flips the accessibility problem over to the blind community. While you might know for certain that you don’t have a blind member in your church, you can’t know that one won’t come as a guest.
#2 – only use videos that are already captioned, and have enough narration that blind congregants can also follow along.
#3 – if there is a video you really want to use that isn’t captioned, consider captioning it yourself! Captioning a 5 minute video is pretty simple, and you can probably find a kid in the youth group who would be happy to do the technical bit. (Before doing this, I would suggest asking the original video creator if a) they would do the captions themselves, or b) if you do it, if they creator would like a copy to offer to anyone else in need of captions).
#4 – if you absolutely cannot caption the video, offer a transcript at the door. (This is the solution my old church finally adopted). I strongly suggest having a sign for this right away at the entrance, and have the ushers with the bulletins holding the transcripts right there, because some people (especially the elderly who are newly hearing impaired) may be too self-conscious to get back up from their seat and go over and get a transcript.
#5 – if you create internet videos to draw people closer to Jesus, please, at a minimum, offer English captions. (No, the youtube auto-captions are horrible. Try them sometime and laugh at the ridiculous, then cry for those who have no other choice but to use them). Having English captions available will make it easier if someone ever wants to do Spanish/French/Arabic/etc captions. Make a call for translations part of your intro text. If you have different versions available for churches/missionaries to use, make that clear and encourage people to ask for them!
#6 – encourage any congregants with disabilities to be open about them. Occasionally make announcements and designate a contact person for them. Churches are so willing to pray for physical healing, but they don’t seem to know what to do beyond this for the disabled body of Christ. Open dialogue and earnest searching is the only way to overcome this.
(A Facebook commentator pointed out that I didn't address ASL in this post. It doesn't work very well for videos due to lighting/positioning, but it's worth talking about ASL and the Church and acknowledging that accommodation in this post, so I'm hoping to do a follow-up post talking about that briefly and will link to it here when it's done. If any of you out there are a Deaf ASL church-goer, I would LOVE to talk to you about your experiences for this follow-up post. Thanks!)
One final thought. Some of you may be wondering why I left my childhood church rather than advocate for the changes I’m talking about in this post. It is very true that those of us with disabilities need to speak up and educate others about our issues. I have always regularly communicated my needs, and that was part of the problem – it was exhausting. I felt that if there was any place that should be ahead of the curve on being accessible, it should be the body of Christ. On top of some other issues I had with the place, it was just too much for me to handle at that point in my life. So I left. But this is part of why I am writing this post, to have something prepared to bring to any new churches I visit, once my health gets better. And who knows, maybe someday I’ll walk into a church that will already have the accommodations I need. That would be the best gift ever.
As stated above, although this post is about a specific circumstance in a specific location, I would like to raise awareness about all disabilities in non-government regulated capacities. Please feel free to share good links with me, and if I think they are constructive to the discussion, I’ll add them to this list.
Accessibility at Geek Conventions (Ironically, the MN convention, CONvergence, was one of the most accessible experiences in my life!)