Welcoming the Hearing Loss Community

Last October, I posted the following tweet, in which I used the term “deaf and dumb” in proximity with being cognitively impaired:

One of my followers, Lucy Crabtree, sent me a kind private message in response. She informed me of how the phrase has been used historically. She also explained why it can be offensive to those in the hearing loss community.

I felt convicted and posted an apology thread.

Since that time, I’ve thought a lot about how little I understand the hearing loss community and how to welcome them into my life and church community.

In December, I published a two-part guest series, “Welcoming the Eating Disorder Community.” It was well-received, and I learned a lot. So, I decided to continue the “Welcoming…” series. Lucy graciously accepted my invitation to write a series on “Welcoming the Hearing Loss Community,” which will appear in three parts this week.

— Part 1 —

I smile and nod in empathy as my new friend tells me about her church. “The pastor sends me and a few other people his sermon before church,” she says. “Those of us with hearing difficulties.” I wince as another friend sighs deeply and says she can’t follow the conversation during the ladies’ Bible study. And I listen as my Deaf and hard of hearing friends tell me over and over, “My parents made me go to church but I had no idea what was going on, so I don’t go anymore.”

A few years ago, I would have told a similar story: I went to church, but I had a hard time following conversations and keeping up with the sermon, so I stopped going.

I spent two years out of church. How could God be okay with me being excluded at church? Why did I have to be hard of hearing and why did communicating with others have to be so much extra work? Why didn’t He DO something?

After two years of talking to God with my arms crossed, I saw Him move. More specifically, He moved me about an hour away from home and into a church that just happened to have a church member who was a certified sign language interpreter. “Providential,” one of the pastors called it. He was not wrong.

The roughly three years I spent there were sweet, and a balm after longing for inclusion for so long. Church wasn’t perfect – is it ever? – but having my friend Hanna interpret for me went a long way.

I have been hard of hearing since I was four years old, and over the last 10 years or so, I’ve had the privilege of leading a local chapter of a hearing loss advocacy group, served on my state’s commission for the Deaf and hard of hearing, spoken to state legislature about insurance coverage for hearing aids, advocated for expanded access to movie and performing theaters, and met people from all across the hearing loss spectrum.

I’ve also been in church most of my life, minus the two solid years away. I am often the only person I know at church with hearing loss, which is surprising, considering that up to 15% of the U.S. population reports some level of “hearing difficulty.” That’s a membership of up to 37.5 million people!

Yet our church demographics often don’t reflect this reality. Hearing loss itself is less a barrier to participating in the life of the church than the church’s lack of inclusion and an underdeveloped understanding of disability.

In the next two articles in this series, I will offer specific ideas on how to make our homes and our churches more inclusive for people who are deaf or hard of hearing. I am sharing mainly from my own hard of hearing experience and from what I hear from my late-deafened friends. People who identify as culturally Deaf and who primarily use American Sign Language to communicate are also an unreached people group, and ministries such as Deaf Missions and Deaf Bible Society are doing excellent work in developing resources for them.

To be culturally Deaf (spelled with a big “D”) is to be part of a unique cultural heritage rooted in American Sign Language (ASL), which is a full and complete language distance from English, with its own grammar and syntax. Deaf Culture includes the customs, history, social norms, arts, and education valued by the Deaf community. My friends in this community do not consider themselves disabled and are proud of their Deaf identity. In fact, they wouldn’t even call it “hearing loss,” but “Deaf gain.”

On the other hand, someone who calls themselves deaf (spelled with a small “d”) or hard of hearinglate deafened, or as a person with hearing loss may sign, voice, or both, but they do not identify with the Deaf culture. They may see their hearing loss as a disability, but not one that is their whole identity. A combination of factors—from their educational experience to family life to exposure to sign language and other communication methods to the age they were when they became deaf or hard of hearing—shape how they see themselves in relation to their hearing loss and influence their communication preferences.

While hearing loss is measured in decibels (how loud a sound has to be before one can hear it unassisted), identity is not. Identity is not a formula, where one must have a specific medical measurement of hearing loss before they can call themselves Deaf, or have a hearing loss of no more than X decibels to call themselves hard of hearing. My own hearing loss, for instance, is in the “severe-profound” category (the penultimate severe degree of loss), yet I call myself hard of hearing. The way I see it, I have a disability that has shaped me profoundly but not the sum of my identity.

Without a safe, supportive community for children and adults alike, hearing loss can be isolating and lonely. Isolation can lead to dementia, especially in older adults. Hearing loss affects communication, which affects … everything, including spiritual fellowship. Hearing loss is not only an individual experience but a communal one, because the very heart of relationship – communication – is at stake.

Churches have been exempt from the Americans with Disabilities Act since its passage in 1990, and as a result, many do not provide even basic accommodations that would allow someone who was deaf or hard of hearing to participate fully in the life of the church. Ensuring effective communication does not fall only on the deaf or hard of hearing person, but on their community as well. As Christians, we have an opportunity to honor the imago dei and respect the dignity of all people by taking responsibility to communicate effectively with people with hearing loss—whether in our homes, one-on-one, or in the corporate gathering.

In Part 2, Lucy shares practical ways to love your neighbor in the hearing loss community. In Part 3, Lucy shares practical ways to include the hearing loss community in your local 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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