In the United States, roughly one in five people has hearing loss. Is your church effectively ministering to the Deaf and hard of hearing? What more could be done to welcome everyone?
Let’s begin by outlining how to discuss these issues respectfully, using vocabulary that this population endorses. Many people with mild or moderate hearing loss prefer to use the term “hard of hearing” to refer to their condition. Some people with moderate, severe, or profound hearing loss prefer to be referred to as “Deaf”, particularly if they use sign language as their main form of communication or if they have been deaf their whole lives.
We hope to help by providing a brief guide to some of the tools available to make your church more accessible, along with insights into how they might be used.
Your church family may already include those that are hard of hearing (HOH) or Deaf. By getting informed and being more conscientious of this fact, you can improve your ministry to them. For example, your church could make sure important announcements are printed out or displayed in text during service. Pastors can be careful to directly face the congregation while delivering a sermon, allowing those who can read lips to follow the message.
- Cost: None, though some effort will be needed to institute and maintain these practices.
- Effectiveness: Varied
- Tech required: None
- Further reading: A free PDF copy of That All May Worship is available from the American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD).
Writing out a manuscript of the content and format of the service ahead of time (particularly the sermon), then providing that manuscript to those that are Deaf or HOH.
- Cost: The manuscript must be printed, assembled, and dispensed each week before services start. Some effort will also be required on the part of the pastor, who must generate then stick to a script. Congregants must be informed of this service, and how to access it via posted signage or regular notices.
- Effectiveness: The message is clearly communicated to both the HOH and Deaf. However, following a message on a printed manuscript is a passive experience. And the overall quality of the message may be compromised, since many pastors prefer to use loosely-structured notes for their sermons and enjoy improvising material.
- Tech required: Printer or access to a professional printing service
- Further Reading: This Forbes article explores why and when manuscripts are required.
Live ASL Interpreters
Have a live ASL interpreter in a prominent position on stage who can provide live signing interpretation during a spoken sermon.
- Cost: Highly varied, depending on if you have skilled and willing volunteers (they typically work in pairs so you will need at least two) or need to hire. ASL interpreting typically costs $50-150 per hour. It would be wise to consider offering an honorarium to volunteers for such a valuable service.
- Effectiveness: An ASL interpreter is an ideal option to minister to the Deaf. However, many hard of hearing people do not sign ASL, so they may need different accommodations. And if your church leadership doesn’t include someone who signs it might be hard to ensure the quality of your ASL interpreting, though some may have certifications.
- Tech required: None, possibly a video recorder, live projector, and screen if the sanctuary is large.
- Further Reading: This Christian Post article titled, “Sign Language Users Overlooked by the Church” and an article from Baylor about how worship services can be more accessible.
Hearing Augmentation using Assistive Listening Devices
These systems are made up of three separate components. First, a microphone is used to capture quality audio of a church service. A transmitter is then used to send out a live broadcast of the church service audio (usually via radio frequency). Finally, the broadcast is picked up by Assistive Listening Devices (ALDs). ALDs are specialized headphones with volume control and receivers. They are maintained by the church and borrowed by the hard of hearing during a service.
- Cost: Initial $300 – $1,200 for hardware, plus maintenance/repairs.
- Effectiveness: ALDs can be used by the HOH and even by some who identify as Deaf. However, they may not work optimally with some hearing aids, and those with profound deafness will not benefit. Some users may feel self conscious using the ALDs, or have hygienic concerns. Headsets must be cleaned after each use.
- Tech required: Transmitters that broadcast audio, signage letting users know the ALDs are available, and enough assistive listening devices to meet the needs of your congregation.
- Further Reading: Check out the National Association of the Deaf (NAD)’s guide or Church Tech Today’s guide.
Hearing Augmentation Using a Loop System
These systems are also made up of three separate components. First, a microphone is used to record quality audio of a church service. The church service audio is sent through a device called a loop amplifier, which transmits it to a thin copper wire that has been installed around the perimeter of the sanctuary. Finally, the processed audio is received directly by the user’s hearing aids; alternatively the signal can also be heard by those with a portable receiver and headset.
- Cost: Installation of the loop is the most significant cost, and may range from $5,000 – $35,000 depending on the features of your sanctuary. Large rooms, rooms with irregular shapes, and constructions that use metal extensively can increase installation costs. However, loop systems are desirable features for event venues, some cost may be made up by renting out your space for private events.
- Effectiveness: To take advantage of loop technology, users must have a hearing aid equipped with a telecoil device. Most hearing aids currently in use have one, and they are becoming more common. The telecoil device will also have to be activated, a hearing professional will be able to do this using a “T-switch” on the hearing aid device. Those without hearing aids will not benefit from this technology unless your church chooses to also provide portable receivers and headsets. The Deaf and those with profound hearing loss may not benefit.
- Tech Required: a loop amplifier, an installed hearing loop, and signage to let users know the technology is available. Users must have telecoil hearing aids, or portable receivers and headsets must be provided.
- Further Reading: Washington Post’s article on “How Hearing Loops can Help“.
Computer Aided Transcription Services (CART)
A certified transcriptionist either on site or remotely listens to your church service (either on-site or remotely), then uses a stenotype machine to generate live captioning. This captioning can be projected onto a screen, or live streamed on a website to be accessed by users on their mobile devices.
- Cost: This service has minimal start up costs, but can range from $60-$200 per hour, often requiring a certain minimum number of hours.
- Effectiveness: Live captioning allows users to follow along with your service word for word. Both the deaf and the hard of hearing are ministered to in a way that is more dynamic than pre-written script. However, reading text captions may not be an effective accommodation for those whose native language is a sign language.
- Tech Required: For on-site CART service, a CART provider may bring all the necessary equipment. For remote CART service, the church will need to send their church service audio to the CART provider live online. Captioning will need to be displayed on a projector screen, or hosted on a website/app for users to access. Users will need to have smart devices with internet connectivity or mobile data, or a public display to read the captions.
- Further Reading: Learn more at CCAC’s FAQ or NAD’s website.
A Combined Approach: spf.io
With this software, microphones are used to capture quality audio of a church service, which is analyzed using voice-to-text software to generate a “rough draft” transcript. This transcript is then modified by an operator and released to the audience on a website accessed by users on their mobile devices. Alternatively, if a manuscript is provided, spf.io can be used to display it line by line, allowing users to follow along in real time. Spf.io can also be used for audio livestreaming, for assistive listening purposes.
- Cost: Depends on your needs and setup. Request a quote for your use case. If your church has access to volunteers who are comfortable using laptop computers, with minimal training you can provide your own captioning service and reduce your operating cost. If not, remote captioning services are available. The cost of the manuscript-based broadcast is more affordable than the live transcription option.
- Effectiveness: Similar to CART, this live captioning allows users to follow along with your service word for word. Both the deaf and HOH are ministered to in a way that is more dynamic than a pre-written script.
- Tech Required: a laptop, a source of venue audio fed into the laptop, signage to inform your congregation of the service, and an internet connection. Captioning will need to be displayed on a projector screen, or the mobile URL shared with the audience for users to access. Users will need to have smart devices (smart phone or tablet) with internet connectivity or mobile data.
- Further Reading: Learn more about how spf.io can help with event accessibility.
There is no “one-size-fits-all” solution to be found, your church is bound to have its own unique needs and resources. Budget, congregation/community demographics, and level of commitment to this issue should all be carefully considered. For example, a church should think carefully before implementing a system with a high operational cost if their budget fluctuates. Some denominations may have accessibility initiatives, and the resources to help member churches offset costs. Some equipment will require consistent maintenance and will not work without help from either a church staff member or a dedicated, reliable pool of volunteers.
Indeed, none of these tools can be effectively implemented by one person alone. Building accessibility in any church will require a team effort. Your church leadership might consider founding an Accessibility Awareness Committee–a group dedicated to identifying areas of need, evaluating ways to meet these needs, and working to rally support among your congregation. Ideally this team will have members familiar with your church’s policies and operations. But often the people who are most informed and passionate about these issues are the ones that are directly impacted. Including the Deaf and HoH (as well as their loved ones and supporters) in this team can help to ensure that your church’s efforts are effective, meaningful, and sustainable.
The hard truth is that the status quo means the Deaf and HoH are passively excluded from typical church services by default. This means that for many congregations, things can only get better. We hope this article will be a resource you can use going forward as you start (or continue) conversations and prayers in your church about accessibility in ministry.