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Since the quarantine began, all of us have been dealing with unprecedented challenges.
I work as a commissioned pastor to persons with disabilities at Jabez Ministries, which meets on the campus of Grand Rapids Community College.
Work has moved online for most who are still working. Social distancing and the “stay-at-home” order isolates us, making us feel out of touch and socially disconnected.
This has disadvantages for persons with disabilities that many of us might not immediately be aware of. I’ll relate to you what I’ve experienced and what some have related to me.
Consider the obstructing nature of face masks. Hearing-impaired persons, such as myself, can’t read lips through a face mask, and the clarity of voice is interfered with.
Persons with other disabilities report that not being able to see facial expressions hinders their ability to communicate properly with others. Social anxieties increase, and misunderstandings are prone to happen.
I’ve had people report that they have “shut down” while at work when customers have lost patience over such miscommunications.
To some, social distancing resembles social avoidance. Many persons with disabilities have past and latent feelings of being left out or ignored.
This discomfort is not true of all persons I’ve talked with. Some persons with Asperger’s or similar disabilities report they are comfortable with the distancing to some degree, but those with ADD and ADHD are not all that comfortable with it .
While all agree that distancing is necessary, some of us wish it were otherwise.
Communicating and forming community online creates challenges. Communicating through a machine is an imperfect means of talking to one another.
We’ve experienced that Sunday worship online doesn’t really feel like worship that we’re used to, or a FaceTime call isn't like a face-to-face chat. Imagine, then, having a cognitive disability, learning disability, or hypersensitivity issues, and the differences can become many more times a problem.
Speaking as a hearing-impaired person and having processing and learning disorders, I was a bit daunted by the prospect of having to do ministry with others who also have disabilities.
We communicate, meet, and conference via video media sites because we have to. It works, but it has its limitations. These are poor substitutes for personal communication.
My personal reluctance to use video chat rooms is based on experiences involving time delays, poor video reception, difficulty reading lips over a screen, and confusion between what I could hear matching up with what I saw. Those aren’t insurmountable issues, and I did not have a reason to face them until now.
Despite these issues, and others not mentioned, connecting online has allowed us to form a new kind of community. We must pay attention to the needs of all whom we interact with via video chat, Be mindful of things such as backlighting, background noise, the person’s face being clearly seen, rapid movements that cause the person’s phone to freeze or skip, and whatever else is needed. Because of these experiences during quarantine, I find the words of James resonate with me daily:
James 1:2-4: Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.
This time of quarantine has forced certain things upon us. The future is not clear. So, then, how do we adapt to the current situation as pastors and churches?
Unfortunately, some things we have to accept as is. Social distancing is necessary. The best thing we can do for persons with disabilities in this culture of isolation is new to most of us. But to some people with disabilities, it’s not so new. Be patient. Communicate well and often. Be reassuring. Keep this community communicating and giving each other discipleship and spiritual care to address the fears and the boredom we’re all facing.
Have video chats with persons with disabilities. And when you do, make sure the light is in front of, not behind you. Don’t try to multitask, and make sure your device is in a stable position. Jerking movements are distracting.
In more public settings, speak clearly, remember you’re speaking with a mask on, which will affect your pitch and clarity. Also your physical expressions are restricted.
Consider wearing a see-through mask. There are sites where these can be purchased.
These recommendations are painted with a fairly broad brush. Each disability affects each person differently. There are many variables to consider. Don’t be afraid to ask what would help.
Let us continue to pray and persevere in these times and mature in the grace that God has given each of us.
A version of this article first appeared on The Network.