Creating a More Accessible Church for the Hard of Hearing

by Devorah Greenstein

If you cannot hear the Lord’s words preached from the pulpit, if you cannot hear your pastor’s voice, or if you cannot make out the words of friends in the social hall after worship, what is the point of coming to church? Might as well stay home on a Sunday morning! In fact the truth is that many people who become hard of hearing do stop coming to church.

Of course, this doesn’t have to be the case. There are ways to create accessible and welcoming acoustic environments for people who are hard of hearing. Some accommodations are simple:

  • Offer printed texts of that day’s sermon to people who are hard of hearing. Visual information helps.
  • Use printed meeting minutes and agendas, flip charts, white boards, and PowerPoint presentations.
  • Make sure the lighting is adequate. A bright light behind can cause a glare or shadow on a speaker’s mouth.
  • Background noise is a big problem for people who are hard of hearing. Turn down music, turn off televisions and radios.
  • Choose a carpeted room. Hardwood floors, high ceilings, or being situated in the center of a large room can all create acoustic problems.
  • At meetings, try to prevent people from talking at once. It can be very confusing to follow the conversation if more than one person is talking at a time.
  • Try to schedule meetings and hold conversations in a quiet room, where the door can be closed and people can sit close together. Noise from phones, copy machines and other background noises make it harder to concentrate.

Some useful tips to keep in mind when you’re conversing with people who are hard of hearing:

  • Always face the person when you are talking to them. Most people who are hard of hearing rely on speech-reading to some extent.
  • Don’t hide your mouth. Keep your hands away from your face and don’t bend your head down while you’re talking.
  • You don’t have to talk loudly, or exaggerate the way you speak, but do speak clearly, without mumbling your words.
  • Higher-pitched women’s voices are harder to understand; if you have a high voice, lower the pitch of your voice if you can.

The most expensive hearing accessible accommodation (and the most worthwhile, in my opinion) for a church is an assistive listening system for your worship space (a transmitter connected to the sound system and small receivers that people can wear.) The Rochester, NY chapter of the Hearing Loss Association of American has an excellent online “Hearing Accessibility Handbook: A Guide for Houses of Worship” with information, resources, and a hearing survey you can use to determine your congregation’s needs. .

Purchasing the assistive listening equipment isn’t enough, though. Maintenance is critically important, as is making sure that everyone who speaks uses a microphone. If your congregation already has assistive listening equipment, be proud of it. Announce it in your newsletter and have a prominent sign in your building’s entryway telling people where to pick up their receivers. (There is an international disability symbol of hearing accessibility that you can post.

If you are near-sighted, a pair of glasses makes objects in the distance clearer. If you are hard of hearing, hearing aids or assistive listening equipment make sounds louder but they do not make sounds clearer. Hearing loss is complex. Whether you, a loved one is suffering from hearing loss or if you want information and resources for your congregation, a good place to start gathering information is the Hearing Loss Association of America.

 

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