Sunday, 8 May 2011

Blind faith : faith for the blind : articles by the blind

Update: 1/1/2012

I returned to St Martin in the Fields on Ascension Day 2011 (Thursday) and was welcomed even though I had turned up well over an hour before the door opening.  I did have some seating in a reserved area and found the service very interesting.  Dr Williams (the Archbishop of Canterbury) was by then making a series of what would turn out to be politically controversial statements (to some).  By the end of the year, Dr Williams was talking more politics and not preaching, while certain members of the cabinet had discovered religion (conveniently) while shedding much of their political theory for the odd soundbite.  Various themes on this original post can be detected through my blog for 2011.  There are hints of some progress regarding blindness awareness, though also some shockers.  I've yet to decide whether to name and shame but there are some professionals in some churches, retail, health and public services who may be requiring shock therapy, counselling and blindness awareness training.  Watch this space!  Happy 2012, if you're on this page!

** end of update

Update #1 10/5/11 is used as verification in a move to avoid spam tweets.  Some churches and organisations and even internet churches use this.  While appreciating that this prevents the unwashed entering their church, it also acts as a gate-keeper in preventing blind people from accessing the website facility.  If I had the time, I would make an audio recording of what a website sounds like to a blind person.  Below is the email I have sent to the verification company.   

For web designers it is much easier if you allow sighted and blind people to click the audio ON, rather than have audio play and disrupt the audio navigation.  I only have one set of ears!!!! 
I am a blind person and have tried in vain to use assistive technology (JAWS 12) using Windows.  The validation by audio does not work at all, as I listen to the audio message, my screen reader was not in the edit box.  I don't know who designed this, but it certainly is not blind friendly.  The numbers which are read out are against a lot of background noise which may be in order to stop voice recognition spam, but given the fact that you are excluding blind people is surely an offence against human decency.  Take note!
end of email.

Original post:
In the end, I had to rely on a sighted person to see if I had a message and to verify visually on my behalf.  This is perhaps the equivalent of a 'sign post' for the blind in the middle of a maze, rather than at the beginning or the gateway.
This title was suggested by a member of the Obreption Collective.  They censored it for a post they were going to send to some delicate theologians, shrinking violets and pillars of the community.  The Obreption Collective has now been socialised to such an extent that they are no longer moderated by some of the press.  In this blog I can be myself, though I have a contract to be a mystery blind visitor, shopper and client at certain social functions, share holders meetings, AGMs, religious services and government and health forums and to report back.

I have been thinking of doing a blog for some time and having had some lessons from a local charity decided to take the plunge.  The catalyst for this blog was a dreadful shopping 'experience' at a well-known store in London, when not only was I referred to in the third person but the grammar was appalling; it was worse than Mr Cameron saying: "Calm down, dear." to Angela Eagle MP.  This was: "Sit him down there on the chair."  Reports of this encounter were mentioned in the under the title "Blind faith : faith for the blind : articles by the blind". 

Being blind, communication poses major problems and without the benefit of either receiving non-verbal communication or being able to give it, there are often some difficulties - many of them funny or even hilarious  and many, regrettably, confrontational. You might want to call it cognitive dissonance or even disinhibition, but that's what happens when you can't communicate.  Some blind people like to live in their own world, some like to act 'normally'.  As with many things, I verge on complacent agnostic to being a fundamentalist disability rights campaigner and - yes - agitator if hacked off by some jobs worth.

With the Big Society we are all encouraged to hope (EF Benson) that the third sector will pick up the slack.  Sadly, with a lot of management speak and bollocks, I usually take great offence when I hear the following expressions:

1  paradigm shift
2  I have to say
3  going forward
4  at the end of the day
5  any event - especially an insolvency event
6  through the pyramid
7  across the piste/piece
8  we're here to help
9  help point
10 customer service
11 any word beginning with 'e' such as experience, excellent, exponential, entropy,
    enthalpy, logarithmic (I know - that's not 'e'!)

As a blind person with a white stick, one ought not to be invisible to parts of the public sphere.  Some parts of the public sphere have employees, officials and figures of authority who are oblivious to the needs, wishes, feelings and communication ‘toolbox’ of blind people.  In future posts, I will be discussing the public sphere as it pertains to the arts, science, law, parliament, democracy, journalism, human rights, religion, discrimination, finance, commerce, travel, technology, etc.  My friends at the Obreption Collective have kindly asked me to discuss aspects of the experience of a blind person within the public sphere regarding religion, faith, theology, worship, and charitable giving.     

Obreption suggested some time ago that I ought to ‘test aspects of life in the public sphere to destruction’.  For starters, Obreption asked me to ‘road test’ the ‘sign posts’ in the Church of England, and suggested that I visit a few cathedrals, some parish churches and some variety of the Anglican spectrum from the Anglo-catholic extreme to Evangelical.  In other words, All Saints to All Souls with a bit of Alpha thrown in. 

One of the biggest problems for a blind person in visiting a strange parish is the ‘welcome’. Is the vicar or the PCC aware that blind people have problems with some aspects of worship?  For example, are you aware that the welcoming committee often stick a hymn book in the hand of a blind person without asking if they can see enough to read?  Believe it or not, I have been assaulted with more hymn books and bibles than I care to remember, even though my white stick is very visible. 

Also, do you use PowerPoint presentations, videos and high tech ‘material culture’?  If so, are you aware that some people in your congregation who cannot see may miss out on an important part of your ‘message’?  Without wishing to state that Jesus preached without the aid of PowerPoint and to people who couldn’t read, are you really offering discipleship to a congregation or is it all for show? 

An eminent neurologist has said that 50% of human information comes from vision.  In other words, those people who cannot see, cannot see ‘the Light’, do not really understand ‘Jesus bids us shine with a pure clear light, like a little candle burning in the night’. 

On a more positive note, I was very pleased on one of my visitations (not Apostolic, but with the knowledge of an Archdeacon) to be greeted by the welcoming committee in a strange parish with a “We have large print copies of the service and hymns for today if that would be of any use to you.”  This is a nice ice-breaker and is much better than being ignored or having a wretched and useless book thrust in your hands. 

Communication with blind people can be very difficult, especially if your form of worship relies on visual prompts.  Smells and bells are quite sensual in Anglo-catholic churches though the statuary, furniture and huge fonts present obstacles and can often result in collisions and damage, and as a result can be intimidating.  On the other hand, the spontaneous nature of Evangelical worship and preaching can leave the blind totally out of it – though the sermons are usually of much higher quality than some of the mystic five minute homilies that pass for a sermon in some Anglo-catholic churches. 

Having been asked by Obreption to road test - that means, turn up unannounced as a blind visitor - two ‘high value’ churches today, I will make the following comments:

1)     St James, Piccadilly,  Rector Lucy Winkett (,

Having negotiated London Underground with the marvellous help of the staff and TfL (10/10), I walked from Green Park and wandered here.  I was totally ignored. The church had a few tourists passing from the market (shades of scourging The Temple) to Jermyn Street. Some kind tourist asked me if I needed any help and I commented about the philosophy of the blind seeking the Holy Spirit in a church, which may have raised a smile, but I wouldn’t know, would I?  I thought I detected a large vacuum cleaner at the eastern end of the building, so the church may have been preparing for an event.
2)     St Martin in the Fields, Charing Cross

Believe it or not, I wandered in here after a visit to the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square.

St Martin in the Fields – National Gallery : compare and contrast
The National Gallery get 10/10.  I had walked in from Trafalgar Square and approached the desk and was asked: "Can we help you, sir?"  I said I would like to see a few Canalettos and was told that they only had a few on show in Room 38 and would I like someone to take me there and read out the captions!   I was then guided to the bookshop, where I bought a couple of postcards and went to the cafĂ© and enjoyed a coffee and a cake.  The staff there clearly understood my needs; when I had asked for a capuccino (though it was after 11am!), the barista handed me a small polystyrene and a large polystyrene cup to illustrate both tactfully and in a tactile manner, the options available (that is disability awareness training - others take note please).

In contrast, St Martin in the Fields doesn’t get much.  I did get to listen to an organ being tuned (I don’t think it was a piece of modern music by Taverner or Macmillan!)  I did hear a discussion by two obviously eminent designer pedants concerning the ‘immovability’ of the font.  Bits of the church were chained off.  I was totally ignored, given that this church has produced the new Bishop of Salisbury and a much acclaimed outreach programme, it is a bit sad to wander in at about 2:30 pm and to get the same treatment as St James.   Maybe they thought I was homeless, sick, but could they see and did they care?  There was even a lectern blocking an aisle and I picked up a flyer which, when read to me having got home, was a flyer for a performance of the Mozart Requiem by candlelight! 
Obreption has asked me to outline some of my stories which are true and you might even be able to check them:

  • the eye clinic in a well-known hospital which has staff who point, stick up notices announcing a two hour delay without reading them out to patients who go to the eye clinic because they have sight problems (could the National Gallery please offer this major teaching hospital some visual disability awareness training) and have opthalmologists who couldn’t give a toss!  
  • a well-known blind charity who gave a presentation to a blind group in – yes, you guessed it! – POWERPOINT! 
  • a high-society blind charity fundraiser held in a well known city wine bar lit by candle-light.  I caught fire and felt like a cross between Guido Fawkes, Joan of Arc and Brunhilde in the Immolation Scene from Gotterdammarung (The Twilight of the Gods); these are very religious themes with interesting politics and subtext.
  • the university which provided a question on cassette as an alternative format in which the question began “Look at this picture and describe the following …” The university, however, was contrite and I do not wish to republicise this.
  • a very well-known supermarket with charitable pretensions, political connections and even a nascent role in the Big Society: I had been guided there by security to the Help Point and the security guard was told: “Sit him down there on the chair.”  Not only did I have to say 20 Hail Marys, 20 Calm Down Dears – but I still went ballistic.  The supermarket has phoned up twice–so far–and are reviewing the video of the event.  It might be shown on YouTube … tell me if you see it.
  • British Transport Police (two of them) when asked for directions, both grunted and pointed in opposite directions.  I could discern this by the fluorescent arm bands.  The location: London Bridge, near Southwark Cathedral!
You can see from these average encounters in the public sphere that not all is easy for the blind.  If you think the above are hilarious and funny, then I will laugh with you; and if you enjoy telling these stories in a nice way in a comedy sketch I will not object - though a donation to the RNIB Guide Dogs and a blind charity in your country would be a good idea.