Life and Hearing Loss – Part 2

. . . how I became an advocate

In the 90s, I had been away from church for a long time and, suddenly, felt the desire to return. My search for a compatible church brought me to Christ Church. I liked the service, I liked the rector, the congregation seemed amenable, and the sanctuary had a speaker system, important for me as a hearing impaired person.

After I joined and was going to church regularly, I began to realize that not much sound was coming out of the speakers. I approached Bill, the Rector, and told him that the speaker system didn't work.

"Oh, yes," he said, "it works." And he walked off.

Soon it became a weekly litany:
"Bill, the speaker system doesn't work."
"Oh, yes, it works."

Then, one day, a tube blew and the speaker system didn't work at all. During the week a technician was called in. He looked at the electronic equipment and said,"You gotta lot of electricity running around here but it ain't doin' much. Ya see this tube - If I try to pull it out, all the other tubes are gonna blow. This is what you call an antique. You need a new system."

Fortunately, one parishioner came forward and donated a state of the art speaker system including a transmitter for assisted listening devices (alds) and a half dozen alds.

A couple of months later, the rector received a letter from a member with an adult child with disabilities. She suggested that as a Christian church we should be looking for ways to make people of all abilities welcome.

The rector handed me the letter and said, "Here, do someting about this."

What do you do in a case like this but form a committee. I called the letter-writer and invited her. I called a fellow vestry member, whose daughter taught children with autism. I called a man who was caring for his aging father. I called another woman who had lost a physically vulnerable child and who was a social worker.

The committee met and discussed what was needed to make the church hospitable to people with disabilities. We came up with a list of 6 things. The most expensive item was a wheel chair accessible restroom. The cheapest was a recommendation to increase the size of the font in the Sunday bulletin.

My fellow vestry member and I presented the list and our retionale to the vestry. They voted down all six recommendations, even the one that cost no money. When it came to the two recommendations most distinctly addressing disability, the accessible bathroom and pew cuts to allow wheelchair users to sit with their family, instead of being shunted to the front or back or the church by themselves, their "no" vote was accompanied by the sentiment, "Oh, we don't want *those* people here."

I called a committee meeting after church the following Sunday so we could inform the entire committee of the result. After we described the results, the committee sat in shocked silence. The silence went on for a long time and deepened into unspoken prayer. After the silence had gone on for at least a half hour, the still, small voice of the man who was caring for his aging father slid into our consciousness: "We're not going away." This experience was the closest to what I understand as the Quaker practice of prayer - and it felt just right.

With the rector's consent, we planned a Sunday in Lent when the committee would take over the service. One member gave a sermon, using one of the many healing stories in the New Testament. And we planned for exercises to expose the congregation to the obstacles that people with disabilities encounter.

But the biggest surprise of all was set for the procession. Bill, the rector, agreed to process into the church in a wheelchair.

As he did so, wave after wave of gasps came from the congregation as the awareness of the situation rolled on with the rector in the wheelchair. At the stairs to the apse, the rector stopped and stood up. More, louder gasps came from the congregation.

Bill said: "You can all calm down. I'm fine. But if I were confined to a wheel chair, I would not be able to conduct the service today, because I wouldn't be able to get up the steps - not only these steps, but the couple at the altar as well. The inability of some people to participate in the life of the church is our theme today."

The exercises commenced at the end of the service and were followed by a soup and sandwich lunch and discussion of their experiences.

What were the exercises: some used canes, some used walkers and discovered the inconvenience of heavy doors, raised door-sills, carrying books, purses, etc.; some donned blindfolds and used canes to try to navigate a terrain they were otherwise used to. Some put stopples in their ears and were told to talk among themselves.

The surprise for us came at lunch. Some of the older parishioners (you know, as old as I am now) began to discuss the difficulties they were encountering getting around church, difficulties with hearing, reading. We had never heard from them before, but the service dedicated to this issue prompted them to speak up.

And, guess what, the vestry - who had ears that couldn't hear - put some moral ear wax softener to the hard wax of their resistance. And all the requests of the committee, except for the wheel chair accessible bathroom, were finally approved.

pew-cut2

Example of a pew cut - from the Epsicopal Disability Network

One story that was particularly gratifying. There was a couple who lived in California and came east every three months to visit the husband's mother, a resident of a nursing home on the block behind the church. They would bring her to church. With no pew cuts, the mother in her wheelchair was placed in the center aisle so she could see the altar (Christ Church then had a Rood Screen that made it very difficult to see the altar from some angles). Unfortunately, being in the center aisle meant she was in the way at times. The daughter-in-law would get up and move the wheelchair out of the way and sit down only to get up again to move her mother-in-law back.

On the couple's visit after the vestry voted no for the pew cuts, I was acutely aware of this family.  I watched as the older woman was shunted back and forth in her wheel chair. I watched the daughter-in-law go up/down up/down up/down to make the service meaningful for the older woman and thought: how simple it would be if we had a pew cut and the whole family could sit together and just partake of the service as everyone else did.

I'm happy to say that we did get the pew cut and just in time for the woman's last visit to our church before she died. But how much more wonderful it would have been if it had always been there to welcome that family.

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