Audism: What it is, Ways to Reduce It and Welcome d/Deaf People to Our Churches
By Rev. Dr. Leo Yates, Jr.
Audism is an “-ism” that many have not heard of. Sounding similar to autism, it’s no wonder audism might be unfamiliar. But like ableism for people with disabilities, it is something that d/Deaf and hard of hearing people live the reality of everyday.* Simply stated, audism is discrimination towards persons who are d/Deaf and hard of hearing. It is rooted in bias that being hearing is superior to being deaf. Instead of being a part of the solution (like advocating for communication access), many churches mistakenly perpetuate audism that excludes d/Deaf and hard of hearing persons. Audism has even caused religious trauma, has hurt discipleship efforts, and has held back d/Deaf and hard of hearing people from living out their call to Christian leadership (because of institutional audism). For centuries, d/Deaf and hard of hearing people were even seen by some as being out of God’s plan for salvation because of misunderstood passages such as “faith comes by hearing, and by hearing the word of God” (Rom 10:17). Another part of audism is a lack of awareness that comes from hearing privilege.
Through efforts of the United Methodist Congress of the Deaf (a Deaf caucus) and its allies, the 1996 General Conference passed legislation that implemented a steering committee to support the denomination to better include d/Deaf, hard of hearing, late-deafened, and Deafblind persons. We know it today as the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Ministries Committee (DHM). Although work for change is ongoing, the efforts of the DHM committee have helped to turn things around. The on-going work of undoing audism is a collaboration between the Spirit and by allies, both d/Deaf and hearing.
Some common examples of audism in the church, as well as how hearing privilege sometimes presents itself are:
- Making assumptions about communication preferences for d/Deaf and hard of hearing persons. An example is assuming that people can hear without the use of sound systems or assistive listening systems or devices.
- Not using or activating captions for videos, podcasts and online events. Also, not making captions or ASL available until after the event excludes d/Deaf and hard of hearing persons from the live event.
- By not having sign language interpreters for public events, such as speaking engagements and annual conference sessions.
- Never or rarely seeing d/Deaf and hard of hearing persons in leadership positions.
- The same barriers can be said for persons who are Deafblind (especially for those with partial hearing loss and partial vision loss), as well as not making the website properly accessible.
Eliminating audism begins with being aware that it is occurring. We need to try and recognize that hearing privilege often excludes or stigmatizes deafness in some way. Hospitality and welcoming goes a long way WITH communication access to help persons feel they belong. Normalizing communication access is a step forward. Other steps include:
- List a contact person in the bulletin and on the church website so persons know where to submit requests for accessibility accommodations.
- Have Deaf and hard of hearing speakers and church leaders (who can be seen as natural role models).
- Consistently use sound systems so speakers can be heard.
- Offer assistive listening systems for persons who are hard of hearing or late-deafened. A grant can be requested through the Deaf & Hard of Hearing Ministries. (e.g., “Assistive listening devices are available. Please ask for it from one of our ushers.”)
- Actively encourage accessibility and participation of Deaf and hard of hearing persons. (e.g., “Interpreters are available upon request.”)
- Train ushers to not only know where assistive listening devices (ALD) are located but know how to turn them on and use them (a simple YouTube video can explain it).
- Offer large print materials and adequate lighting for Deafblind persons or for hard of hearing persons who are beginning to have vision loss, like with cataracts. Remember, ASL is a visual language and dimming lights diminishes communication.
- Ensure captioning and subtitles are consistently turned on whenever persons gather for worship and other group settings (e.g., Microsoft PowerPoint, Zoom, Otter.ai, YouTube videos). Assume it’s needed and not ask, “Does anyone need the ALD?” (some people may be embarrassed).
- Provide qualified sign language interpreters when requested (some grants are available through the DHM). Using a person who completed two classes of sign language or assuming a family member will interpret are not acceptable.
- Offer periodic sign language classes, as this motivates persons to communicate with d/Deaf and hard of hearing persons, as well as encourage persons who are losing their hearing to consider expanding their communication preferences.
- Disseminate worship guides with liturgies, prayers, Scriptures, announcements, and hymns or songs, as these are easier to follow for persons who are losing their hearing, perhaps due to age (remember, 1-in-3 65 year-olds have mild hearing loss). Bulletins that divert people to different books might be challenging for some.
- Celebrate or observe Deaf Awareness Month in September and/or International Deaf Awareness Week during the last full week of September and any other time during the year.
- Post signs near the sanctuary entrance that ALDs are available. This would be in addition to being on outside signs, on websites, in bulletins, and other public spaces like a fellowship hall.
Deaf ministries vary from church to church, depending on the context of the church or community. Some churches focus on communication access or accessibility that enable persons to participate with the assistance of technology. Other churches provide sign language interpreters for persons whose primary language is sign language. And still, other churches have a ministry or a group of d/Deaf and hard of hearing persons who gather and the church supports their ministry. If a church does not have an active ministry or group, then some churches even support another church's ministry (we are connectional). Leadership is crucial and pastors and deacons need to be supportive and welcoming to d/Deaf and hard of hearing persons.
The following are some examples of Deaf ministries and examples of communication accessibility. A more complete list can be found at the DHM website.
Spring of Life UMC in Manila, Philippines has connected with a group of d/Deaf and hard of hearing Filipinos by offering space and the use of technology to support their ministry group.
Kona UMC in Kailua-Kona, HI has a dedicated person (ReBecca Bennett) as a director to better support the church’s commitment to being accessible for d/Deaf and hard of hearing persons and coordination of its ministry.
Los Altos UMC in Los Altos, CA is committed to inclusion and provides an interpreter upon request and consistently uses visuals in their Sunday service, helping people to better follow the service.
First UMC in Bastrop, TX ensures its hybrid worship service is accessible with the use of visuals, captioning and a sign language interpreter.
The Deaf and Hard of Hearing Ministries Committee is on hand to support churches in their commitment and accessibility with the offering of grants, resources and consultation. Starting off with allies, persons willing to learn sign language and about accessibility and the development of ministry partners are viable ways to start a Deaf ministry.
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* A capital D in the word Deaf represents one who culturally identifies with the Deaf community and has a shared sign language. The lowercase d in the word deaf represents hearing loss and/or someone who has hearing loss but may prefer spoken speech over sign language.
For questions or if you wish to start a Deaf ministry, please contact Rev. Dr. Leo Yates at email@example.com. Leo is Accessibility and Inclusion Coordinator for the Baltimore-Washington Conference.