When large group meetings were suspended a year ago due to COVID-19, churches scrambled to figure out what an online church would look like. Would it be on Zoom or YouTube? Would they be able to compete with all of the professional quality videos already posted? Should each church continue to create their own sermons? Or should they join together with other churches in their diocese, classis or presbytery, and let the larger churches, which already had a good online presence, shepherd everyone for the time being?
Of course different churches did different things and most scrambled through in various ways. Unfortunately, one topic that was often left out of these important discussions was how accessible these options would be for those who have some form of disability.
Caroline Short, a regional advocate for Disability Concerns in British Columbia, acknowledges that there are indeed benefits of Zoom and YouTube, explaining how a virtual church creates new opportunities for mission work: “People who are anxious, who have mental health barriers to participation, who are nervous about walking into new buildings, they can join a Zoom meeting or watch a previously recorded YouTube video and try things out.”
And they’re not the only ones who are better able to engage in a church community because it was forced into the online sphere. People who are homebound, caregivers without respite, parents of young children, people with no transportation, and many others are now easily able to join in, listen to the sermons, and connect with fellow congregants.
But what about those who can’t participate? People like Maria Kovacs, who despite being fairly technologically savvy, still struggles because of her blindness. “It’s very hard,” says Kovacs. “With our church website, the first time I tried to find the sermon, it took me almost 45 minutes. I almost gave up.”
If times were normal she could call someone to come over and help. But times, as we all know, are anything but. “It’s aggravating,” she says. “Nobody wants to come here,” and, unless they know what her system looks like, trying to explain to her where to look and what buttons to click over the phone is challenging at best. Luckily for Kovacs, her church’s secretary has seen the system she uses and was able to talk her through it.
Left Out by Leaders
Not everyone is that lucky. On top of their own personal struggles with their sight or their hearing, some people in our churches have to deal with church leaders who simply don’t want to help them.
“Some people say, ‘but they’re not my target audience,’ to end the conversation. Then they don’t have to think about accessibility issues,” says Mark Stephenson, director of Disability Concerns for the Christian Reformed Church. “They forget that the church in Revelation 7 is a church of every tribe and language,” which includes those with disabilities.
It’s not just attitudes and poorly designed church websites that cause roadblocks for some individuals; how churches present their sermons can also be problematic. Zoom and YouTube have the option for closed-captioning, but not every church uses that feature and not everyone knows how to turn it on, so those who struggle to hear can’t follow along.
Most churches still use videos that are not described and have no audio besides instrumental music, which means those who struggle to see have no idea what is happening.
“They post different things – messages about how others in the church are doing – that run though the screen [during the sermon], but because there’s no descriptive, I don’t see it,” says Kovacs. In fact, the only reason she knows her church does this, is because someone mentioned one of the messages to her, and when she remarked she hadn’t heard that, they explained where they saw it in the sermon.
“It’s these kind of things,” says Kovacs. “I’m not a disabled person. I’m a blind person. I do a lot to prove I’m an abled person; the only thing I can’t do is print.”
But while Kovacs can do many different things, she still needs people to care about her challenges.
The Canadian government follows the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), which are internationally recognized guidelines about how organizations can make their websites and online videos more accessible for people with a variety of disabilities, to ensure everyone can access the information on their sites. “I wish the church was the same way,” says Kovacs.
Some of the problem stems from a simple desire to create aesthetically appealing videos and websites. It’s hard to stare at plain white powerpoint backgrounds all the time. We see major news organizations with text running across the bottom of their screens, so it makes sense that churches should be able to do that, too. After all, it easily and effectively gets other important, though not currently relevant, information across. But ignoring the contrast between the written text of a song and the background, or overlooking the fact that closed captions often run across the bottom of the screen right where the extra information is displayed, forces some people to the side, and signals that they are unimportant to their church community.
If you’re not sure where to start, Kovacs points out that it would be useful for those who work for her church to understand the systems she uses to interact with others online.
And if churches aren’t sure what needs there are, how about asking? “You can think together and engage with the folks. Ask ‘what do you need so you can participate as fully as possible?’” says Stephenson.
Both Kovacs and Short caution not to stop once you’ve met the needs you can see easily.
“When churches are choosing web accessibility, it’s not always about filling needs you know about. It’s about setting the table for when those people are ready to come and eat,” says Short.
People like Krysia Emily Waldock, who is autistic and likes online church because there is less stimulation. As she explains in an article for the Canadian Journal of Theology, Mental Health and Disability: “I have enjoyed being in a space that does not overwhelm my senses and being able to listen, be and focus.” It gives Waldock more time to think about what she’s heard and any questions she might have, and she can avoid encounters with people who tell her to find somewhere else to worship or disregard the extra support she needs.
Sometimes churches may never know who has been blessed because of their decisions to be more accessible. Other times, those individuals may need a while to feel comfortable enough to come forward.
Short shared a story about a woman who felt called to interpret her church’s sermons in sign-language. No one in their church needed sign-language, but the feeling didn’t leave. One year later a couple of individuals came forward and thanked her for translating the sermon for them.
“[Web accessibility] doesn’t always feel urgent,” says Short, “but if it can be diligently pursued, then things can happen,” and our brothers and sisters who are often overlooked can finally, fully engage with the rest of the church family.
In print this feature was published alongside Applying what we’ve learned for a post-pandemic church: are we facing a digital dilemna? by Ross Lokhart.