Communication is essential
A means of communicating with others is a fundamental need of all God’s children. Participation in communities of all kinds, including communities of faith, depends on our being able to communicate. Communities of faith risk losing the gifts of people with limited hearing unless the community pays special attention to accommodating their various needs. Accommodations that include people who have mild or moderate hearing loss differ significantly from those that benefit people who hear very little.
Deaf or hard of hearing?
People who do not hear well, or at all, use various terms to distinguish between the degrees of hearing loss. If in doubt, ask the individual.
• Hard of hearing persons have a hearing loss, but can still hear. A hearing aid or Assistive Listening Device may improve hearing and facilitate participation.
• Persons who are deaf (with a small “d”) have very little or no hearing. These folks rely on the English language (either spoken or signed), speech reading (sometimes called "lip reading"), print, and/or other visual materials as their primary means of communication.
• Deaf (with a capital “D”) persons use a distinct language—American Sign Language (ASL)—and identify themselves with a cultural group—North American Deaf Culture. Some persons who identify with Deaf Culture may have some hearing.
Including the hard of hearing
Regular use of a public address system for group gatherings is a good place to begin when congregations want to be welcoming to people who live with a mild to moderate hearing loss.
All participants benefit when leaders make sure all parts of a worship service or meeting are amplified. A roving microphone used by all speakers who offer sharing, prayer requests, announcements, etc., will help all to hear. If a roving microphone is not available, a leader who repeats each comment over the pulpit microphone is an adequate alternative.
Congregations may also provide Assistive Listening Devices (ALD) for use in worship. Ushers should be educated on the location of ALDs and know how to assist persons wishing to use them.
An alternate technological innovation for hearing assistance is the “induction loop,” which delivers a magnetic signal directly to a tiny, inexpensive receiver in a person’s hearing aid. Hearing aid users activate the "telecoil" (T-coil) receptor within their hearing aid simply by pushing a button. A loop system reduces background noise and greatly clarifies the sound heard by the listener. Hearing aids that provide this technology are becoming more common. As churches serve increasing numbers of aging members, installing loop systems offers a way of valuing the participation of hard of hearing members.
Churches do well to note the essential role of lighting in supporting the participation of people with hearing loss. Many who are hard of hearing or deaf rely on speech reading (also called “lip reading”), which requires proper lighting of the face of speakers.
Cross cultural communication
For individuals with little or no hearing, sign language interpretation may facilitate participation in a hearing community. This typically means interpretation between ASL used by the Deaf community and spoken English.
Congregations can approach the inclusion of Deaf persons in the same way as they would provide for any person who communicates in a different language. While some may prefer separate Deaf churches, true integration requires hearing churches to become intentionally cross cultural. This means not only competent ASL interpreters to allow Deaf members to participate in the flow of worship, but also hearing members who are willing to learn ASL as a new language and understand Deaf culture in order to build relationships with Deaf participants.
Is deafness a disability?
Hearing parents of a newborn deaf child will often view deafness as a disability and may need support to grieve and make life adjustments. As they learn about deafness, family members may or may not embrace the opportunity to learn sign language. Family decisions related to language preferences will impact church participation for the child.
When children learn ASL as an effective natural language, they may eventually come to identify themselves with the vibrant North American Deaf Culture rather than as a "disabled" member of the predominant English-speaking culture. Teens and adults who identify as Deaf can communicate easily within the Deaf culture and with others who learn their language and their unique life experiences.