I am excited to introduce you to my friend Maureen Pranghofer. Maureen has taught me many things over the years about faith, relationships, living with blindness and ministering to people who are visually impaired. She is a most joyful, witty and insightful friend. I recently had opportunity to interview Maureen about being blind and participating in church. It’s my honor to share our conversation highlighting helpful and exciting opportunities for churches who want to learn how to do life better with people who are visually impaired.
How did you become visually impaired?
I was born three months premature and so my retinas didn’t develop properly. This meant that, as a child, I could see colors and identify objects and, if the light was right, walk without assistance. I lost much of that in my twenties when a cataract developed. But at the age of 30, I had surgery and got 20/200 vision—the edge of legal blindness—in one eye. I could see things like stop and go lights, and I could read print with magnification. After having that much sight for ten years, I was in an accident in 1993, and in four days I became totally blind.
How has blindness impacted your faith?
I experienced much loneliness and isolation, and as a teen I became very depressed and made plans for suicide. But a librarian at school casually told me, “Jesus can be your friend.” I began thinking about this. One night during Mass I prayed, “If You’re my friend, how do I get to know you?” From then on, God and I have been walking together. So if I wasn’t blind, I don’t know that I would have the wonderful relationship with the Lord that I experience on an ongoing, ever-expanding, deeper level. This relationship has been such a treasure to me for the 48 years since that time.
How has church encouraged you?
In whatever church I’ve attended, I have had many encouraging experiences because the church has believed in me. People have even come to me because they have seen something in me that they felt would help others. In my senior year of college, I was asked to give the message at a campus-wide celebration. That was the first of such experiences. Church, for me, was a place where I knew I was wanted.
What are some challenges or obstacles that hinder satisfying church involvement for people with visual impairments?
My own church has been wonderful to me, but these are some of problems I know others have experienced:
Transportation to and from church activities
Difficulty reading along with the congregation
Inability to have the words for songs being sung during worship
Difficulty accessing church websites that aren’t using accessibility features
Limitations about participating in activities. I’ve heard of blind people who have been refused the opportunity to do things like missions, helping in the nursery and potlucks because of their blindness
Inability to interact with people. As a blind person, you hear all kinds of voices. It can be difficult interacting with a group, but fine in a one-on-one situation when someone approaches you for conversation.
I wish churches would understand the difficulty blind people have communicating in a group. A blind person may hear someone they want to talk to, but not know how to get over to them. We can’t glance at anyone to get them to come over or notice us. We may inadvertently interrupt a conversation because we don’t realize there was a pause and two people are still deeply in conversation. When a blind person is sitting alone, it may be that they want to interact but don’t know who is around them.
Why are some church websites hard to navigate for someone with visual impairment?
A blind person can use a screen reader to speak to them what is on the screen. Alternatively, they may use a Braille display. If a website doesn’t have accessibility features, at worst, the website can’t be read at all, or they may only be partially readable. This excludes blind churchgoers from getting necessary information about events, registering for events, listening to archived sermons or participating as fully as they might like. If churches are not aware of the accessibility needs of those living with disabilities, such as people living with limited fine motor skills or cognitive disabilities, the website design can hinder their ability to access websites as well.
How can a church test their website for accessibility?
One way to test a website for access is to contact WeCo (theweco.com), an organization that provides a free one-page access assessment. The assessment tells people if they are on the right track for access with their website. WeCo also offers a variety of free and low-cost training courses which can help people get started with web access. There are other companies which provide software for testing and some are free. Unfortunately, software can only point out some of the problems or look at about twenty-five percent of the issues. People are needed to run the tests and see the whole gamut of issues.
What resources are available to help a church make their website more accessible or help churches accommodate people with visual difficulties?
WeCo’s Free Accessibility Library is a great centralized source for finding out about accessibility laws and guidelines, as well as free tools that can help you get started. The National Federation of the Blind site has many articles about the personal experiences of blind people in church. An old book by Elizabeth Browne that looks at the theology of blindness and how it affects blind people in church is The Disabled Disciple. And, of course, Joni and Friends is a highly valued resource for people with disabilities and their families.
Your service dog, Walter, has quite a fun personality and is a great help to you. I love reading your “Walter Report” stories on Facebook. Will you share one of those to help us understand more about life with a service dog?
I think Walter has the correct understanding that if something doesn’t make noise then it doesn’t exist for me because I’m totally blind. Consequently, when I ask him to close the cupboard door he gives it a doozy of a slam. This holds true for the washer and dryer doors as well. Well, one night I asked him to close the door. Not hearing anything, I asked again. My husband Paul started laughing. Apparently, Walter had closed it ninety-nine percent of the way very quietly. So when I asked again, Walter walked up and pushed his nose as hard as he could so it made a slam sound.
What are some things people need to know about service dogs?
Service dogs, guide dogs and support dogs are specially trained for specific tasks and are not to be petted while they are working. It is legal to have them everywhere.
A dog may be trained to pick up items or lick its owner when his or her blood sugar is low. My dog, Walter, is doing mobility assist. Guide dogs lead the blind. The true emotional support dogs are trained by a school such as Helping Paws and they do something specific for the person needing that service. For example, veterans use support dogs for PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder). Support dogs may be trained to awaken someone when they are having nightmares or bring them medications when they can see a certain symptom in the person.
Some people bring fraudulent dogs to public places. Two questions you can legally ask if you’re wondering if the dog is a real service dog are: Do you use the dog for a disability? and How does the dog assist you? If the person can’t answer in concrete ways and just says, “He makes me feel good” then you can ask the person to leave or call law enforcement.
How do you feel God has used blindness in your life as ministry or blessing to others?
God has used my blindness to others in so many ways. In my ability as a songwriter, I’m able to describe things in a deeper way than people who can see. I show people trust-in-action as I follow other people’s directions. Most of all, I think I’m able to show people that, despite my being totally blind and using a power wheelchair, there is still joy.
Maureen Pranghofer is an author, speaker, songwriter and braille transcriber from Golden Valley, Minnesota. Maureen’s book Ally’s Busy Day: The Story of a Service Dog is available on Amazon. Her passion is writing songs, especially songs which express her core Christian values. She has been writing since 1986 and has produced three albums available at iTunes and Amazon. Her song I Choose You was popular on Christian radio in the 1990s. Outside of songwriting, Pranghofer is an avid reader, runs a Braille transcription service, does web testing for accessibility and customer service for a company called WeCo, and is very active in the Twin Cities Scrabble club. Maureen can often be heard singing around her house in Golden Valley, Minnesota where she lives with her husband, Paul, and her mobility assist dog Walter. Visit Maureen at Braille It to learn more.
Lisa Jamieson is the author of books and Bible studies including Finding Glory in the Thorns and a delightful children’s book on prayer called Jesus, Let’s Talk. She is founder-director of the Minnesota Disability Ministry Connection and co-founder of Walk Right In Ministries where she serves as a caregiver coach. Lisa and her husband, Larry, have been married over 30 years and have three grown daughters. Their daughter, Carly, has Angelman Syndrome and lives at home with them in Maple Grove, Minnesota.