By Rev. Leo Yates, Jr.
T-Mobile became known for its “Can you hear me now?” commercials over a decade ago. While there was some humor in the commercials, it’s not so funny when you’re the individual who is leaning in, trying to hear or follow a conversation or a sermon. This is quite often the reality for many persons with hearing loss. Most churches have some persons struggling to hear. One in three adults 65 and over have mild hearing loss—a number that requires attention. Whether one labels themselves late-deafened, hard-of-hearing or a person with hearing loss, communication is often being missed. There are many reasons for hearing loss, but instead of examining the cause, it behooves churches and church leadership to consider accessibility for persons with hearing loss. This includes those with dual loss, including those who fall into the deafblind category (having significant hearing loss and partial vision loss). As with many disabilities, a small change, such as the onset of cataracts or age-related macular degeneration coupled with hearing loss brings a person into the deafblind population.
Quick starting a Deaf ministry isn’t quite the same as jump starting a vehicle. The main difference is one has a vehicle to jump start, while a Deaf ministry is often starting from scratch. The Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Ministries Committee has support for starting one. Some basic accessibility options can be the first step to support persons who are losing their hearing (the phrase "hearing impaired" has fallen out of use). Yet, we cannot forget the fact parishioners and visitors remain connected to faith communities because of their relationships, not just because of the accessibility. Accessibility helps though!
Choosing where to start will vary from church to church. Some quick and inexpensive options to improve communications for persons with hearing loss include:
- consistently using the church sound system and installing an Assistive Listening system (see the Sound Systems section at our website
- use captions with all media during worship and group studies
- add captions to audio with options such as Google Transcribe
- turn on YouTube captions or subtitles
- turn on captioning for Zoom meetings and webinars
- include all of the worship information in a worship bulletin (e.g., announcements, songs, Scripture readings, sermon outline, and pastoral prayers)
- offer both a paper bulletin AND an electronic version of the bulletin
- consult periodically with users to learn what is helpful for them (remember, hearing loss can worsen)
- offer seating closer to the speaker/preacher to better hear and/or lip-read
- recommend the monthly Adjusting to Hearing Loss group (led by Rev. Leo Yates) starting in January 2022.
More extensive options for accessibility include:
- complete the survey for accessibility for hard of hearing and late-deafened persons (different from the annual Accessibility Audit)
- put out brochures related to hearing loss and related content, for information and to remove stigma, thus leading to acceptance and openness
- post signs about available assistance (assistive listening devices, large print materials, and accessible restrooms)
- recruit a volunteer to be the church accessibility coordinator (a board of trustees member can also be considered)
- participate in virtual Accessibility Conversations (register for free) to learn about church accessibility
- offer a sign language interpreter for public access (consider applying for a grant)
- join the Church Interpreting Group (for novice signers feeling called to learn, email Rev. Leo Yates for details)
- offer sign language classes (free online classes are here)
- periodically sign songs and Christian dramas
- make sermon manuscripts available on the church website so persons can go back to see what they missed
- ensure that your church website is accessible and conforms to W3C standards for font, magnification, and contrast, and consider including an accessibility widget to highlight options.
- provide or assist with transportation for persons with both hearing and vision loss.
Emmanuel United Methodist Church in Beltsville, MD has several Deaf and hard of hearing persons attending both in-person and online services. “We use captioning, have an interpreter for most services, and offer periodic sign language classes,” said Roy White, a founding member of the church’s Deaf ministry. Beverly Honeycutt shared, “We love our church and want to be a part of its community.”
Grace United Methodist Church in Baltimore, MD, along with its lead pastor Rev. Dr. Amy McCullough, remain committed to accessibility by incorporating periodic signed songs by the children's choir, offering a comprehensive worship guide that is easy to follow, captioning some of their livestreamed service, and making sermons available on the church website and through its weekly emails.
Most late-deafened persons, typically the beloved seniors and older adults, wish to remain vibrant leaders in their church. Christ wants this too (read the Great Banquet parable in Luke 14:15-24). We can make this happen with consideration and commitment.
Rev. Leo Yates, Jr. is a deacon in full connection serving as the Accessibility and Inclusion Coordinator of the Baltimore-Washington Conference. For questions or comments, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.