Welcoming the Hearing Loss Community — Part 3

In Part 1, of this three-part series, guest author Lucy Crabtree shared her experience with hearing loss and struggle to find a place in the local church. In Part 2, she offered practical advice for loving your neighbors in the hearing loss community. This third and final installment features practical advice for including the hearing loss community in the local church.

— Part 3 —

Including people with hearing loss at church requires cultivating a culture of inclusion, which goes beyond providing accommodations to examining the church’s internal culture and attitude about hearing loss.

The first step toward inclusion at church is to know your people. If you do have someone in your congregation with hearing loss, start by meeting with them and asking questions. What do they need? How do they prefer to communicate? What could the church do to make Sunday services easier for them to understand? What are other church events like for them? Listen, and work with them to figure out how to better include them at church.

If you do not know of anyone in your congregation with hearing loss, consider looking for a Hearing Loss Association of America (HLAA), Association of Late Deafened Adults (ALDA), or state association for the Deaf affiliate nearby, or even with your state school for the Deaf. They can offer context for your area’s Deaf/hard of hearing population and culture. If your area is home to a population of culturally Deaf people, then starting or supporting a Deaf ministry or church may be the best option. Check Deaf Missions and Deaf Bible Society to see how you can get started.

Even if a Deaf ministry is in your future, still be mindful of those in your congregation with hearing loss who do not consider themselves part of Deaf culture. The following suggestions listed here are based on my hard of hearing experience and from what I hear from my late deafened friends.

Examine your budget. 

Accessibility costs money. For deaf and hard of hearing visitors, this might mean paying a sign language interpreter, installing a hearing assist loop system or purchasing assistive listening devices, or paying for real-time captioning services (known as CART).

Many churches will try to find sign language interpreters, transcribers, or other service providers to volunteer their services. However, this is unfair to qualified service providers who have worked hard to earn their credentials. It often means that the “volunteers” the church gets are woefully underqualified. As a result, the deaf or hard of hearing person isn’t getting the same full and complete message that everyone else is getting. The gospel is precious; why would we settle for a low-quality solution to sharing it? What does that say about how we value (or don’t) people with hearing loss? What does it say about how we value (or don’t) the gospel message?

Give sacrificially and unconditionally. 

Be the church that says of inclusion, “this is who we are” rather than “this is what we’ll do for you.” Resist the temptation to single out the person with hearing loss or ask them for a two-day notice if they won’t be at church just to get out of paying for something. Hard of hearing people need sick days, too. They already feel crummy; don’t add to their blues by saddling them with guilt for costing the church money.

Be prepared to pay for the interpreter or the captioning even when the people you think need the accommodation aren’t there, for two reasons: you never know who will visit on Sunday, and some accommodations intended for one person might benefit others as well.

A Facebook friend recently shared that she tried to visit several different churches on one Sunday. Each indicated online that they offered an ASL interpreter, but when she arrived at each church, she was told the information was outdated, or the interpreter wasn’t there that day.  Those churches missed several opportunities to welcome her and her family, and maybe even to encourage further visits later.

In addition, some accommodations benefit more than just people with hearing loss. For example, real-time captioning makes Sunday services inclusive for people with auditory processing issues or who are learning English or learning to read.

Take responsibility, even financial responsibility, to be an inclusive church. You might be surprised at who responds.

Go online.

Think about the church website. Could a person with hearing loss use it as fully as someone who was not deaf or hard of hearing? If the sermon audio is posted online, is it accompanied by a transcript? Are videos shared on the church’s Facebook page or website captioned? The cost associated with adding a transcript or captioning (or both) is relatively minimal. Most CART providers include a rough transcript for no or little additional charge. Companies like Rev charge a mere dollar per minute to create captions for videos.

Go organic. 

Some accommodations require paying for professional services or devices, but other steps to inclusion are more organic. Part 2 of this series offers suggestions on interpersonal communication when engaging with people with hearing loss. Many of these suggestions can be applied to small group settings, such as Bible studies or adult education classes.

One of my favorite Bible study groups had maybe ten women in total. My teacher and I talked briefly before our first gathering about how to communicate effectively. She took it upon herself to set the group dynamic without making it about me—“We’re going to talk one at a time, please try not to interrupt each other, and make sure we’re all sitting where we can see each other. Let’s do this, so everyone understands what’s going on.” I LOVED that and felt much more engaged and involved in the discussion than I had at previous Bible studies. We didn’t need any technical equipment or even a sign language interpreter, just a little patience and a willingness to learn from each other.

Minister with, not just to. 

Hearing loss has formed how I view God and suffering and sovereignty. It shapes how I read and understand Scripture and how I pray. I wish more of my fellow believers saw my experiences and relationship with God as just as rich as theirs.

I have been in seasons of life where I’ve felt that I’ve been on the receiving end of a “mercy ministry.” The other party perhaps feels sorry for me, or sad that I don’t hear the way they do. So they go out of their way to welcome and include me. On the one hand, I need to accept that sometimes I need to be ministered to. It’s humbling! We all struggle with this.

On the other hand, being ministered to sometimes feels like the other person is acting out of a sense of obligation or even pity. Sometimes obligation can’t be avoided—we don’t always naturally love one another and sometimes we have to go through the motions of serving one another, even when we’re not “feeling” it. And sometimes I have to receive the obligatory serving, even whenI’mthe one not “feeling” it. This is dying to self, both for you and for me.

But just as I have to check my heart (am I too proud to receive this act of service to me?), I encourage my hearing readers to do a heart check before the Lord. Ask, “Am I wanting to serve because it makes me feel good, because I feel bad for this person, or because I genuinely love them and the Lord?” Ask the Lord to help you truly love your deaf and hard of hearing sisters and brothers for who they are—equals, co-laborers. Minister alongside them, not just to them.

Know your people; know your needs.

The suggestions are based on ideal scenarios. The reality is that the size of the church, whether the church rents or owns the building they meet in, the acoustics, the internal culture, the nature of congregants’ hearing loss and communication preferences, and the church budget are all factors to take into consideration when it comes to welcoming people with hearing loss at your church. Talk to and get to know people—the d/Deaf and hard of hearing people in your congregation and neighborhood know far more than one or two articles can cover about their particular needs at your particular church.


picture of author Lucy Crabtree

Lucy Crabtree lives in the Kansas City area, where she advocates for communication access for people with hearing loss. A former English major (and she won’t let you forget it), Lucy writes about disability, singleness, church, gospel, and one-anothering on her blog (sometimes) and Twitter (often). You can follow her at @tolivequietly.

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