Note from editor Gael Hannan: Mary Dyer, my guest writer this week, lost her hearing – and then realized how people like her were being sidelined in congregations of faith. She set out to do something about it. This blog is adapted with permission from her article in ‘Sojourners’, “Please Hear Those of Us Who Can’t”.
by Mary Dyer
Is your congregation of faith prepared to help those with hearing loss?
I am always saddened but never surprised that there is generally no mention of the largest group of people excluded every week most congregations of faith: 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, dreaming of the day when we could hire an ASL signer at least once a month. In my naivety, I believed that hearing loss could be countered by a hearing instrument, allowing the user to have comprehension close to that of a person with “normal” hearing.
That misguided belief was tested eight 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, as a Christian minister — churches.
At the time I became deaf, my spouse, Sheryl, and I were awaiting her ordination. Yet, as we struggled to come to terms with the full impact of my initially devastating deafness and how it might impact our future ministries, 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 20% of the population has hearing loss, and many are not able to purchase hearing aids because of their financial situation and medical insurance that doesn’t cover this.
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 loop our seminary chapel, as well as Sheryl’s student church in San Francisco. As our journey progressed, we 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 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. Neither do we know what technologies are available to help us 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 just 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 our company, Hearing Access Solutions, which has evolved into education and advocacy for persons with hearing loss, and also 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 full time 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 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.
- 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 — through action, not empty words — people like me by providing the technology that lets us continue as contributing and important members of our respective communities of faith.
“Let those who have ears … hear.”
Image: Sanctuary of Padre Pio, San Giovanni Rotondo, Italy
Mary Dyer, a Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) minister who became deaf eight years ago, is an advocate for better services for people with hearing loss. As a member of the Iowa Deaf Services Commission, she is drafting legislation to be introduced to the state legislature to require hearing instrument specialists to inform clients at the point of purchase of the advantages of the telecoil. She can be reached at email@example.com.