I just read the Sojourners blog, The Most Ignored and Undervalued People Within Churches Today, challenging churches to reach out to marginalized people. I was saddened but not surprised there was no mention of the exclusion of the largest group of people excluded every Sunday morning: those with hearing loss.
I have always considered myself “progressive,” ready to take up the cause of those in society that needed advocacy. While I was a pastor of a church, I worked toward making our building wheelchair-accessible and dreaming of the day when we could hire an ASL captioner at least once a month.
Yet in my naivety I believed that adult-onset hearing loss could be countered by a good hearing aid, allowing the user to have comprehension close to that of a person with “normal” hearing.
That misguided belief was tested five years ago when, at 63, I became deaf after knee surgery. It was seven months before I received a cochlear implant, but soon discovered it was inadequate for situations I would encounter daily: meetings, restaurants, movies and — most ironically — churches.
At the time, my spouse, Sheryl, and I were awaiting her ordination to find an area where we could continue our ministry. Life, however, had other plans. As we struggled to come to terms with the full impact of my initially devastating deafness, we learned a lot about being deaf that we did not know before I tumbled head first into the community of people with hearing loss.
It is a very big community. Studies show that close to 8 percent of the population has hearing loss, many of them not even being able to purchase hearing aids because of their financial situation and medical insurance that doesn’t cover hearing loss.
We began as a community of two. Months after I received my cochlear implant, I was at a meeting in the deaf center where a hearing loop was installed. It literally transformed my life. By turning on my telecoil setting, I could hear the speaker clearly, distinctly, without ambient noise, rather than struggling to use my neophyte’s skills as a lip reader.
With God’s divine sense of humor, Sheryl had been an electrical engineer before her mid-life call to ordained ministry. This allowed us initially to work with Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, Calif., to loop its seminary chapel, as well as Sheryl’s student church in San Francisco.
As our journey progressed, we slowly realized that our own journey was leading us to advocate for others with hearing loss who were struggling to stay in their communities of faith, or perhaps had given up and left, usually without telling anyone why.
What we found most commonly is that, one, those of us with hearing loss tend to minimize or deny it and do not believe that we have a “right” to any special accommodation by those with normal hearing; and, two, don’t know what technologies are available to help them hear better.
For those of us who hear normally, there are several roadblocks to seeing — and hearing — the need for assistive listening technology, specifically hearing loops:
- We literally are not aware of the problems of those with hearing loss, unlike our awareness of physical access issues.
- We tend not to have empathy for this issue. It isn’t popular.
- The people making decisions about accessible listening systems tend to be “hearing,” rather than those who can directly benefit.
As a result of our experiences, Sheryl and I started Hearing Access Solutions. This has evolved into both education and advocacy for persons with hearing loss, and installing hearing loops. Our most special call is for people of faith who are asking themselves how they can be more welcoming. It has turned into a fulltime ministry for both of us.
There are people — right now — in your churches (no exceptions!) who are excluded by their hearing loss. They may not tell you. They may even minimize or deny the extent and impact of their hearing loss. Yet they are out there, every Sunday, until it gets so difficult they just leave.
So, if you are truly serious about being welcoming, become their advocate.
- Invite a company that installs hearing loops to do a site visit of your church to come and answer questions about loop technology and give an estimate.
- Begin to ask congregants with hearing loss how they manage to cope and find out if they have T-coils.
- Perhaps invite an audiologist to come do a presentation to explain t-coils and their advantages.
- Based on your findings, develop a plan of action.
There is nothing I can do to alter my hearing loss. What I can do is continue to challenge communities of faith to welcome me — through action, not empty words — by addressing the needs I, and millions like me, have for hearing loop technology so that we may continue to be contributing and important members of our respective communities of faith.
“Let those who have ears … hear.”
Mary Dyer, a retired minister, became deaf five years ago and, while she now has a cochlear implant, her having to struggle to hear clearly in public led to her doing advocacy and education around hearing loss issues, particularly in communities of faith. Together with her spouse, Rev. Sheryl Butler, a former electrical engineer, they formed Hearing Access Solutions, LLC, so that they can also provide information about hearing loop systems, including consultation, writing proposals and installation and certification. She can be reached at www.hasloops.com.
Photo: Barry Barnes/Shutterstock