Using Media in Worship and Including People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired

About Sarah Blake LaRose

Sarah Blake LaRose is a freelance writer and a professor of Biblical Hebrew at Anderson University School of Theology in Anderson, Indiana. She is one of three blind academic scholars who received the Jacob Bolotin Award from the National Federation of the Blind in 2016 in recognition of innovative work in the field of access to biblical language texts and tools for people who are blind.

The twenty-first century is often referred to as the postmodern era. One of the hallmarks of this period is the extensive use of video and images to communicate. It is widely believed that images draw the attention of a person more powerfully in this generation than do words. In some cases, images alone are expected to communicate the message. The disadvantage of this practice in worship is that it excludes members and friends of the congregation who cannot see the images. This group includes not only people who are totally blind but also senior citizens who may no longer be able to see clearly. In fact, most people who are classified “legally blind,” even those who are young, retain some usable vision.

The Experiences of People Who Are Blind

Sadly, some people who are blind have endured stoically after church leaders have suggested that they “enjoy the music that goes with the video.” In discussions, blind and sighted church members have noted that the messages from listening to a piece of music alone and the message from watching an image accompanied by music are profoundly different.

Some people have asked a person sitting nearby to attempt to describe the video. This approach yields varying results. Factors influencing the results include the sighted person’s willingness and ability to describe; the sighted person’s emotional reaction to the video and the impact of the reaction on the person’s ability to describe; and, most important, whether or not a person who ccan describe is sitting nearby at all. The nearest person may be a child or another person who is blind. A number of people who are blind have reported that they often find themselves sitting alone.

Video Examples and Feedback

Noticing the plight of a congregation member with deteriorating vision, Chris Hall asked me for feedback regarding some videos he posted on YouTube. The comments I provided for him may prove useful to others who use media in worship; and he has given permission for me to share the links to his videos along with my comments.

An ideal scenario for a blind person watching a movie is to have a description of the action that is going on added to the audio track. I have tried advocating for this in some churches but have been told that it would be distracting in the service. Description as part of a video in a church service should be used artfully, as illustrated in Chris Hall’s videos. Sometimes it may not actually achieve the desired effect for a blind person that the image achieves for the sighted person. For some blind people, sound is the equivalent of image. Description should be used to augment the video where sound cannot provide detail. My suggestions here attempt to strike a happy medium and create a video that a blind person can follow with minimal intervention as well as one that speaks to the person in sound the way that it speaks to the sighted person in image.

Students volunteer at Target: Dayton begins with a good audio identifier introducing the video. Then music plays and there is music over the video. In the middle, the music backs down, and there is a brief segment in which the worship at Dayton is heard. My suggestion is to back the music down with the exception of the live worship segment and include some live audio over the music so that the sound of volunteering is heard. In addition, include some voiceover snippets from the volunteers providing brief one or two-sentence commentary on their experience.

Salem students attend convention is strictly video set to music. If this was played in a service without any introduction, I would not know what was being shown at all. If it was introduced, given my interest in the teens’ experiences, I would want to hear their voices. Bring the volume of the music down to a good background level and let me hear the audio that goes with these images. Let me hear them laughing, singing, etc. Put in some voiceover with them talking about their experience. Make this a true documentary and not just a music video.

Conclusion

Media can be a powerful tool in worship. Its use should augment the act of worship for everyone, not only those who can see or those who can hear. While I have spoken here regarding the accessibility issues concerning church members who are blind or visually impaired, I also urge you to educate yourself regarding accessibility issues concerning media and those who are hearing impaired. If your church offers listening devices, make sure that you understand what happens when you use media. Talk to the people who use them. Connect with ministries for people who are deaf such as Silent Blessings.

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