Church service for blind gives new way of seeing
There was the Blessing of the Stuffed Animals. Also, music of famous groups and composers, like the Beatles and Broadway tunes. And art shows. They took place all within the sanctuary of the Congregational Church of Patchogue, representing different ways to experience spirituality and faith.
But this Sunday, Sept. 22 at 10 a.m., another sacred endeavor will take place. The children’s choir will sing blindfolded, as will the adult choir. Church participants will be invited to wear one for 15 minutes, if they so choose, in an interactive service, “Intentional and Unintentional Blindness.”
Albert Rizzi, a blind Bellport resident, will be part of the service with his guide dog, Vaughan. Rizzi is founder and CEO of My Blind Spot Inc., a nonprofit organization that promotes inclusive and accessible digital technology to enable equal access employment, education, recreation and independent living opportunities for people with disabilities. Artist Leila Atkinson will present Rizzi with a painting that a blind person can “see.”
The Rev. Dwight Lee Wolter hopes the program will not only impact seeing residents about issues they never thought of that a blind person experiences, but also how “being blind” translates into affecting social justice.
This is the third time Wolter has hosted Rizzi with his guide dog.
“Here’s the Buddha part,” Wolter said. “I thought, how about if we set up an event so that participants have a somewhat temporal experience of what Albert lives with all day, every day. Then we could also explore the loss of something major, like how those that are disempowered are discriminated against, with racism and homophobia becoming part of that.”
Rizzi was the executive director of a thriving preschool and after-school program on Jerome Avenue in the Bronx, when he was suddenly hospitalized with a strain of fungal meningitis that attacked his optic nerve; he woke up blind at age 42. A tough, incredulous period ensued, but Rizzi started his nonprofit three years later.
My Blind Spot Inc. has offices on West Main Street in Babylon and on Broad Street in Manhattan.
Developing websites, software and digital media software programs, mobile apps for those sight-challenged or who can’t read because of perceptual, cognitive or learning disabilities became Rizzi’s driving mantra.
That helps with issues most people don’t think of, like job applications.
“We were integral in creating digital accessibility in the county,” said Rizzi, who sat on the county’s disability board. A resolution introduced in 2013 by legislators Schneiderman, Spencer, Anker and Calarco passed in July 2014, ensuring Suffolk County Government internet content accessibility to the print disabled by using screen reading software. The Department of Internet Technology was tasked with its completion.
“Government officials are intentionally blind to our community,” Rizzi said, “and we’ve been ignored for thousands of years. Eighty percent of our websites are not in compliance.” Twenty-five million non-institutionalized individuals report having a severe visual impairment, Rizzi said, and access denial is daily.
Currently, no state or federal laws require business internet accessibility content.
Among My Blind Spot’s victories: The nonprofit convinced Intuit.com to work with them on making QuickBooks for Windows digitally accessible and usable. And last December, the New York State Procurement Council approved My Blind Spot as a preferred source vendor through the New York Preferred Source Program for the Blind. That means providing digital accessibility and usability testing and remediation services to state agencies, municipalities, public schools, colleges, universities and hospitals.
Rizzi spoke to the Advanceby phone and lives in a home purchased from his grandmother. “The technologies that exist that people can use include a screen reader, which takes the printed text and converts it to an audible platform. Then there’s a magnifier for people with low vision and Braille display and speech and voice technology, so we code for all of that.”
As for the upcoming service, Wolter explained its unfolding.
“People who enter will be given the option to put on a blind fold — it will be their choice,” he said, “after which they will be handed a bulletin. Which is ridiculous, because if they are blindfolded, they won’t be able to read it. That’s the introduction to ‘welcome to the world of the blind.’ Then they will be escorted to a seat in the sanctuary. They’ll feel their way into the pew. Then the chorus will sing blindfolded.”
“Amazing Grace,” with its reference to once being blind, will be sung.
The Sunday School children, aided by parents and helpers, will be guided on stage blindfolded. They will sing, “Open the Eyes of My Heart.”
“At one point during the song, they will take off their blindfolds. When they are seated, the message for our children will be the time to ask questions to Rizzi about his experiences and even about his dog,” he said. “Then, during the service, Albert and I will converse. People of all faith and no faith are invited.”
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