How Can Churches and Other Organizations Be More Accessible to People With Hearing Disabilities?

Churches help people better engage with their communities by meeting specific needs: providing nursery care for children, offering large-print Bibles to those with limited vision, building ramps for individuals using wheelchairs or strollers. But the needs of people with hearing disabilities may go unnoticed and unmet by those planning services or large gatherings.

Hearing disabilities affect around 3.6 percent of individuals living in the United States (11.4 million people), according to the 2017 Annual Disability Statistics Compendium, based on the American Community Survey by the U.S. Census Bureau. Defined by the census as being “deaf or having serious difficulty hearing,” hearing disabilities account for 28 percent of all disabilities in the country.

By thoughtfully incorporating sign language and using technology and strategy to make services more accessible, organizations and places of worship can better communicate to people who are deaf and hard of hearing and become a more welcoming space for those in search of a community.

How Does American Sign Language Work?

American Sign Language (ASL) is not merely a way of communicating — it is connected to a community and culture. Those learning sign language should bear in mind that ASL is a powerful tool and representation of a group of individuals. 

Learn about the basics of ASL below. 

  • Hundreds of sign languages exist. American Sign Language is the dominant sign language in the United States.
  • ASL consists of an alphabet, conveyed through fingerspelling and hand signs. Many signs are iconic, which mean the sign creates a visual image of the word it represents.
  • Meaning is communicated through facial expression. Look at the speaker’s eyes when they are signing, and use your peripheral vision to pick up the hand signs.
  • Facial expressions also provide punctuation.
  • In ASL, quality of motion helps to communicate the richness and depth of language, which are elements that pitch, tone, and volume communicate in heard language.
  • Signs close to the body indicate something that happened recently or will happen soon. Signs far from the body indicate longer ago or further in the future.

To learn more about American Sign Language, visit:

Incorporating ASL Into Community Life

Before featuring sign language at large gatherings, leaders must consider their intent. Is there a need for sign language in their community? Are there people who use sign language in attendance?

Another question that leaders could ask is if the church is located in an area with a high population density of people who have a hearing disability. The graphic below illustrates the attendance of religious services by those who are deaf and hard of hearing by state.

Comparison of hearing disabilities and weekly religious service attendance by state.

Go to a tabular version at the bottom of this page of hearing disabilities and weekly religious service attendance by state.

Some states have higher percentages of residents with hearing disabilities who regularly visit a place of worship, as indicated by the Pew Research Center, along with higher percentages of residents with hearing disabilities, based on data from the 2017 Annual Disability Statistics Compendium.

In Alabama, for example, 51 percent of the population attends a religious service at least once a week, compared to the national average religious service attendance rate of 36 percent, and the percentage of people with a hearing disability is 4.1 percent, compared to the 3.6 percent national average.

Other states have lower rates of both, including Maryland, where 31 percent of the population attends a religious service and 2.6 percent report a hearing disability. Still others states see higher rates of one variable with lower rates of the other, such as Texas: 3.4 percent of the population has a hearing disability, and 42 percent attend a weekly service. 

Members of the deaf community are divided on whether hearing people should use sign language, said Jen Richardson, an ASL educator based in Washington, D.C. Incorporating sign language into places of worship should therefore be an intentional choice that is connected to the organization’s mission.

For Christian communities that identify a need and desire to better serve the deaf or hard of hearing population, the online speech pathology program from Baylor University's Robbins College of Health and Human Sciences offers three phrases with the expertise of Lewis Lummer, Ed.D.

1. Benediction

The Lord bless you and keep you. The Lord make His face to shine upon you and be gracious to you. The Lord lift up His countenance upon you and give you peace.

2. Mealtime Blessing

Our Father, for this day, for our friends, for this food, we thank Thee. Amen.

3. Evening Prayer

Here at the day’s end we seek you, O Lord. You have been our sustenance across the sunlit hours. Be now our counselor, comforter, and protector in the dark of night. Amen.

How Can Organizations Become More Accessible to People Who Are Deaf or Hard of Hearing?

One of the most effective ways a church can better serve people in their community who use sign language is to hire a pastor who is deaf, said Bob Rhoads, pastor of First Baptist Church Alexandria’s Deaf Congregation. The principle applies to any organization — hiring staff from a particular community can improve support and representation for members of that community.

Personnel who are deaf or hard of hearing will bring an understanding not only of the language but also of the lived experience of a disability. Training, hiring, and supporting them is essential to ensuring those in the deaf community have representation in leadership and know that their presence is valued.

At the same time, all leaders need to be educated about communicating with the deaf and hard of hearing population. This responsibility cannot only belong to staff members who are deaf. 

Churches, for example, without the resources to hire a full-time pastor can still structure worship services in a way that better supports people who sign. Rhoads offers the following advice for organizations:

Hearing Accessibility Guidelines for Theaters, Places of Worship, Lecture Halls and Other Large Event Spaces  

Add visual captions

If videos are played, ensure there are captions of words that are spoken and any sounds that support the story (e.g., the sound of a crowd cheering). These can appear on the screen or in a printed program for attendees to follow along.

 

Include visual aids

Consider presenting artwork or pictures to go along with verbal messages. These can enrich the story and more fully engage listeners with a hearing disability.

 

Encourage hearing people to have pen and paper ready

Writing on a notepad can help support conversations between hearing and deaf members of the community.

Have an interpreter

An ASL interpreter can translate words spoken or sung in real time, allowing people with a hearing disability to engage more directly with the service. Color contrast is important to make the hearing interpreter as visible as possible. The interpreter should stand in front of a dark background and wear a different colored shirt to help them stand out.

Consider lighting

Avoid dimming the lights or focusing the spotlight on the one speaking or presenting. These practices make it harder for people who use sign language to participate. They also may have the unintended effect of causing drowsiness. If stage lighting is necessary for the space, put a spotlight on both the speaker and interpreter.

How Can Organizations Better Prepare to Serve People Who Use Hearing Aids? 

Individuals without a hearing disability may still struggle to pick up on the words spoken and sung in worship and other may use hearing aids, which are essentially microphones that pick up all of the sounds around them. But hearing aids only correct about half of hearing loss, said Juliëtte Sterkens, an audiologist and hearing loop advocate for the Hearing Loss Association of America.

However, hearing aids cannot improve a user’s ability to process information. “So in church, where there’s reverb and background noise and kids crying and people shuffling their feet,” she said, people with hearing aids will struggle to hear the single person speaking at the front of the space. 

Sterkens offers the following guidance to help improve the ability of connecting with a community member who uses hearing aids.

Educate leadership and membership that simply turning up a hearing aid is not a perfect solution.

Hearing aids work best when the individual is about 10 feet away from the speaker, but this isn’t always possible in a large setting. Also, hearing aids don’t speed up an individual’s verbal processing time. 

 

Consider investing in technology to support people with hearing aids.

Hearing assistive technology, such as a hearing loop, should be installed by a trained professional, not a general electrician. Feature clear signage and information about how to use the technology.

Teach proper microphone etiquette.

Anyone who uses a microphone to communicate with a large group should be trained in best practices for ensuring they can be heard. The microphone should be placed two inches from the speaker’s mouth. If children are reading, they should have a stepstool so they can reach the microphone or podium.

Practice clear communication.

All speakers should practice clear communication, making an effort to form each word, particularly the consonants. Consult Oticon’s resource Communication Is a Two-Way Street for advice. Speakers should never say, “I don’t like using a microphone, so can everyone hear me?” This instantly excludes those who have trouble hearing and may not hear the question.

With thoughtful planning and intentionality, places of worship can create a better experience for the deaf and hard of hearing population and become a more welcoming space for people with hearing disabilities.


This section contains tabular data from the graphic in this post.

Religious Attendance and Hearing Disabilities Return to Religious Attendance and Hearing Disabilities

Mental Health Issues Among Incarcerated Adults by Percentage
State Population with hearing disability Population attending at least one religious service a week
Alabama 4.1% 51%
Alaska 4.7% 30%
Arizona 4.1% 34%
Arkansas 4.9% 41%
California 3.0% 31%
Colorado 3.5% 30%
Connecticut 3.1% 28%
Delaware 2.8% 34%
District of Columbia 2.5% 28%
Florida 3.8% 35%
Georgia 3.3% 42%
Hawaii 3.5% 28%
Idaho 4.5% 35%
Indiana 4.0% 37%
Iowa 3.5% 36%
Kansas 4.1% 37%
Kentucky 5.1% 39%
Louisiana 4.0% 46%
Maine 4.9% 22%
Maryland 2.6% 31%
Massachusetts 3.3% 23%
Michigan 4.0% 33%
Minesota 3.6% 34%
Misssissippi 4.0% 49%
Misouri 4.0% 37%
Montana 4.9% 31%
Nebraska 4.2% 39%
Nevada 4.4% 31%
New Hampshire 4.2% 22%
New Jersey 2.6% 35%
New Mexico 5.1% 36%
New York 2.7% 29%
North Carolina 3.9% 39%
North Dakota 4.0% 33%
Ohio 3.8% 38%
Oklahoma 5.2% 43%
Oregon 4.8% 29%
Pennsylvania 3.8% 34%
Rhode Island 3.3% 36%
South Carolina 4.1% 47%
South Dakota 4.5% 36%
Tennessee 4.4% 51%
Texas 3.4% 42%
Utah 2.9% 53%
Vermont 4.4% 21%
Virginia 3.2% 44%
Washington 4.0% 30%
West Virginia 5.9% 46%
Wisconsin 3.6% 27%
Wyoming 5.3% 38%

Citation for this content: The online speech pathology program from Baylor University's Robbins College of Health and Human Sciences.