If You Were Blind…

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Visually-impaired children read from Braille versions of the Qur'anPeople who are impaired do not want to be pitied or coddled; they just want to have the means to adapt so that their impairments do not prevent them from being treated as humansVisually-impaired  children read from Braille versions of the Qur'anIf you were blind, deaf, or in a wheelchair, what would this past Muharram have been like for you? Would you have been able to even get inside the mosque? Would you have been able to benefit from a majlis, or would you have been excluded from being able to understand it? Could you have joined a congregational prayer? Could you have done matam or recited Qur’an or reflected on someone else’s poetry and recitation? Or would you have been stuck at home, not even being able to join in with a lecture on YouTube because it didn’t have captioning, nor read a single book about Hussain (peace be upon him) because it wasn’t available on tape or in Braille?

A friend of mine who is a blind Shia Muslim told me about how her community had a meeting to decide whether to replace the chandeliers in the main hall with newer, fancier ones or to add ramps at their entrances so that people in wheelchairs could get in. They voted to buy new chandeliers – true story.

The sad reality is that the majority of Shia Muslims are very ignorant about the needs of their impaired brothers and sisters and are not filling their responsibilities to the impaired members of their communities. Many masjids do not provide necessary services, even when required by law, and some of the community members behave toward impaired believers as if they have a contagious disease, as if they had committed some sin for which they deserve their impairment, or as if they are unintelligent and incapable of learning anything about the religion and should have no interest in participating in any activities of the masjid. Some seem to think they should not be seen or heard, but they should stay home so others do not have to even be aware of them. Some are just uncomfortable and nervous around impaired community members.

There are a few of our larger communities who have made steps in the right direction. A few communities have formed committees of volunteers who liaison with impaired Shias to provide whatever services they need. For example, some communities have started madressa classes in sign language and have invested in Braille and audio libraries. Further, they have provided interpreters at mosque functions for the hearing impaired and have tried to caption speeches and record them. They have made sure the prayer hall, lecture hall, bathrooms, eating areas, and all other areas of the center are accessible for those in wheelchairs, and helped to provide transportation and seating. Some of our brothers and sisters have even organized Hajj and Ziarat trips specially designed to cater to the needs of blind, deaf, or wheelchair-bound community members.

Even small communities have a responsibility to make sure all of their members, impaired or not, are able to participate in functions. If you don’t think your community has any impaired members, you may be mistaken, and if you truly have none now, chances are you will in the future and should ideally already have the infrastructure in place to welcome them. The first step needed is to talk to impaired community members and find out what their needs are. Ask! You may need to reach out to them, because if the facilities and services are poor, they may not have been coming to the mosque – but that doesn’t mean they aren’t part of your community or that you don’t have a responsibility to them. Assigning a small committee to address issues of wheelchair access, audio books for the seeing impaired, help getting around the masjid, educating community members about how to respond to the needs of impaired members and include them as full human beings in the community, and providing transcripts, captions, or interpreters of lectures for the hearing impaired are some small steps that can be made everywhere. If your mosque is part of a larger organization, then make sure your community is involved on the larger scale in serving the impaired. A larger organization may be able to help provide resources without duplication of efforts in tasks such as captioning and recording books into audio format.

A nice current example of what could be done is the Majlis on Wheels initiative by the United Shia Youth of Chicago. The Facebook event page for Majlis on Wheels states, “the United Shi’a Youth of Chicago will be hosting a day of majalis for the elderly and disabled of our community by bringing a majlis to the convenience of their home. During the ‘aza period, USYC will schedule short majalis at different homes of these momineen. If you or someone you love is unable to attend events at the masjid, please contact USYC to add your name to the list of locations. USYC is also collecting the names of volunteers who would like to recite marsiya, hadees, and nohas at the majalis.”

People who are impaired do not want to be pitied or coddled; they just want to have the means to adapt so that their impairments do not prevent them from being treated as humans, from being educated, from being active, from growing in faith, and from being fully participating members of society. Tomorrow, it may be you who is impaired. But even if you pass through the majority of your life without significant impairment, the chance that someone close to you will face serious impairment is very high. So if doing the right thing isn’t motivation enough to act today to make sure your community is welcoming and accessible to the impaired, do it for your loved ones or for yourself. Find a reason that will make you take action – you won’t be sorry you did!

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