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Barbara J. Newman on Visual Hospitality in Worship: More than Large Print

The older you get, the more likely you are to experience visual loss. Disability and advocacy expert Barbara J. Newman describes sight-related worship changes that benefit the church as a whole.

Barbara J. Newman teaches, consults, writes and speaks on disability and advocacy. She is also a Calvin Institute of Christian Worship (CICW) program affiliate. Her books include Accessible Gospel, Inclusive Worship and Autism and Your Church. On September 13, 2016, her day-long seminar on universal design for worship will help churches make room for persons with a wide range of abilities and disabilities. In this edited conversation, Newman talks about including people with visual impairments in worship.

Why should churches be thinking more about using large print in church worship?

Estimates of Americans living with vision loss vary from 7 to 10 percent of the total population. Visual loss is usually defined as having trouble seeing—even when wearing glasses or corrective lenses—as well as being blind or unable to see at all. The older you are, the more likely you are to be visually impaired, mainly because of eye diseases. By 2030, more than 20 percent of U.S. residents are projected to be age 65 or over. What this means for churches is that more and more worshipers will have trouble seeing. So, if you use only small print in worship materials, then you run the risk of excluding people.

I remember sitting beside someone during an emotionally gripping PowerPoint presentation in church. Along with background music, the information was presented as written text and pictures that the person next to me couldn’t see. When we were done, I remember thinking that the individual next to me heard a song—and that was the extent of what that individual would glean from that presentation.

Might visual hospitality be an invisible issue in churches?

Yes, because a big chunk of people who benefit from well-constructed visuals in church are sometimes those who speak up the least. Many individuals over the age of 65 have changes in their vision. But many do not speak up or expect there to be solutions. You may need to approach people and ask them to be part of giving input about readability.

Many churches forget to advertise what they have. Some actually have some large print Bibles and large print bulletins available, but they don't necessarily make it known. So, let people know what you already are doing for them.

What counts as a large enough font?

In its regulations for free mailing for people who are blind or visually impaired, the U.S. Postal Service says that a 14-point font is the minimum size for large print. The American Foundation for the Blind specifies 18-point as the standard font size for large print.

However, as with any inclusive worship design plan, you need to talk with the people in your congregation who live with visual impairment. Some need 24-point or 36-point fonts, so even large print Bibles and hymnals won’t work for them. Others use Braille.

How do brightness, contrast, design or layout affect print or projected material?

For technical questions about visual challenges we usually turn to Tips for Optimum Readibility, one of many great online resources from Disability Concerns, an agency of the Christian Reformed Church in North America. For example, it’s easiest to read projected text that uses one type of font with consistent thickness, such as Arial. You should use the largest font size possible to include meaningful chunks on each slide, for example, 15 to 20 words that might be a whole sentence, outline section, verse or chorus.

What non-print elements make a difference for worshipers with visual impairments?

The best thing is to ask people in your congregation to describe their visual challenges. Maybe your worship space is very dark, so people need enhanced lighting at their seats or highlighting on steps. Maybe they can't see well enough to go forward for communion and would rather have the elements brought to them. The important thing is to ask, not assume. One person may want another’s assistance to go forward. Another may prefer to move independently.

Transportation is often a need for people who don’t see well, especially since many public transportation and disability van services have limited schedules on Sundays. Make sure that worshipers who can’t drive have a way to get to church for Christmas Eve, Maundy Thursday and other special worship services.

What else might congregations need to know about their members with visual impairment?

Like I often say, every good plan has two parts—the plan for the individual and for “everyone else.”  My book Helping Kids Include Kids with Disabilities explains that sometimes peers need information so that they can welcome the gifts that each one brings. Many churches benefit from “de-mystifying” an individual child or adult. In a children’s setting, this might mean giving information to the leaders, a lesson plan for peers and maybe a note to parents of peers. For any age, it can be helpful to have the person tell their story of living with visual impairment, or, with their permission, telling it on their behalf. You can let people feel Braille materials or show a group of adults how to best lead a person to the cookie area. When saying hi, it’s important to greet the person by name and identify yourself: “Hello Mike, it’s Lisa.” Use a normal tone of voice and let them know when you’re leaving the conversation, since they can’t see you go.

What first steps can churches take to help people with visual challenges—without overspending their budgets?

The first step is to let people know that everyone is welcome and that you are happy to make changes to help worshipers participate according to their abilities. Before a recent Calvin Symposium on Worship, the organizers offered to take requests from attendees who needed print materials in alternate formats. They did get some requests. It was a learning curve for sure, but the individuals who received what they needed to visually participate were thrilled.

The second step is to plan worship enough in advance so that worshipers can prepare according to their needs. Many individuals who have specific vision needs already have a device that works for them. They just need their church to make material—bulletins, responsive readings, lyrics, PowerPoints, sermon outlines and so on—available electronically ahead of time. That way people can download the information in a way that presents it to fit their vision needs. Churches can do this either by request or as standard practice.

What’s an example of how a person’s visual impairment can bless a congregation?

I’ll give two examples. First, I know of a church in California that sends out an email that lists the songs for the next Sunday’s worship. They use hymnals, so people can find the lyrics. This helps certain members print out lyrics in very large font or Braille. But it also helps everyone in the church prepare for worship.

Second, there’s a church in Alberta, Canada, where a man who’s legally blind does the scripture reading four or five times a year. Reading is by now very difficult for him, so he memorizes the passage. Worshipers always comment afterwards how meaningful it is to hear the Bible spoken instead of simply read aloud. He says he likes memorizing, because it helps him go deeper into “the beauty and majesty of the Word.”


Register for Barbara Newman’s day-long seminar on universal design for worship. Use these tips for teaching children with visual impairments.