Having a sense of belonging is important, yet despite the emphasis on inclusion some have been left feeling isolated and excluded. This is true of those who struggle with hearing loss. It is sometimes called an invisible disability. The impact of hearing loss affects all relationships, whether it be in the family or the church. It often affects spoken language, which in turn impacts learning development in children and dementia in older adults. The social well-being of the individual is an important part of spiritual growth and, if not realized, can lead to emotional effects such as loneliness, isolation, depression, and anxiety.1 A study by the World Health Organization states that the annual cost of unaddressed hearing loss is in the range of $750–790 billion globally.2 But while the economic burden is enormous, what cannot be quantified is the personal distress caused by the loss of communication, its effects on education, and the social integration that accompanies it. Studies indicate that the number of people with hearing loss is going to rise in the coming decades.
The question remains for pastors and local church elders, deacons, and deaconesses: How can churches accommodate the needs of members who are deaf or hardof-hearing?
The first step is to acknowledge that the problem exists. The impact upon relationships within families and the church itself is significant. Once that is recognized, then leaders can begin to build an informed and supportive church environment that is both welcoming and inclusive towards those who have difficulty in hearing. Major improvements in assistive listening technology have recently been made. These improvements are a significant help for the hard-of-hearing, especially in crowded areas like churches.
It is important to understand the differences between those who regard themselves as “deaf” and those with a partial hearing loss (commonly referred to as “hardof-hearing”). The two conditions are entirely different, and a caring church community should know how best to meet the needs of either condition.
Those with partial hearing loss may or may not use hearing aids. In most cases, they can still function within a community with normal hearing, albeit with a higher stress level as they try to follow a normal conversation. Some with profound hearing loss may use sign language as a supplement. Most hard-of-hearing people, however, will avoid using signs or in any way being seen as part of the deaf community.
Those who are deaf do not have enough residual hearing to benefit from any amplification technology. Instead, they rely entirely on a visual mode of communication such as sign language. Today, most Western countries recognize sign language for the deaf as being on a par with any other ethnic language and are often entitled to the same government-funded interpreting services as any ethnic language group.
ASSISTIVE LISTENING DEVICES
Many hearing aid users experience a reduced ability to follow a conversation in noisy places. This is because microphone technology in hearing aids and implants cannot match the ability of undamaged normal hearing to focus on one voice in a crowd. This is especially true in large halls filled with many people speaking at the same time. The stress level for hard-of-hearing persons attempting to understand and communicate in these circumstances is much higher than for someone with normal hearing. The ideal solution lies in the informed use of assistive listening devices (ALDs).
ALDs are a group of technologies designed to help hard-of-hearing people overcome the reduction of speech clarity experienced in large, people-filled areas like churches. ALDs allow individuals to wirelessly connect to public address systems. This improves the audio and provides better clarity with the background noise largely removed.
There are many ALD systems available on the world market. Wading through the maze of options requires careful research by people with a good knowledge of audio systems and hearing aid technology. Where possible, the expertise of professional audio engineers and/or audiologists can be very helpful. A useful booklet titled How to Equip Your Church or Venue for People with Hearing Problems3 makes it easier for churches to find the system that would work best for them.
One of the earliest and most common ALD systems still in use in many churches and public venues today is the audio loop. Despite increasing redundancy as new technologies emerge, it is still widely promoted by suppliers with vested interests as the assistive listening system of choice. However, audio loops present significant disadvantages in the face of new hearing aid technologies. Audio loops only work with hearing aids or implants fitted with audio loop receivers. But increasingly fewer new model hearing aids are equipped with loop receivers (unless a patient specifically requests it) and therefore, will not work with audio loops.
A NEW DIRECTION: DIRECTSTREAMING TECHNOLOGY
Hearing aid manufacturers and audiologists today tend to promote new hearing aids fitted with Bluetooth or direct-streaming technology. This new technology enables wireless connection with cell phones, computers, and TVs and eliminates most of the issues associated with electronic interference, variable reception, and “drop-outs” experienced with audio loops.
Typical of new technology ALDs that utilize cell phones is the Listen EVERYWHERE Wi-Fi system from www.listentech.com.
The Listen EVERYWHERE system streams audio from inhouse sound systems direct to cell phones or tablet computers via a free app. Users can listen via their earbuds or headphones or connect wirelessly to their hearing aids (if equipped with the new direct streaming technology). This system also enables language translation. Other ALD systems that don’t use phones are available.4
PROVIDING SERVICES FOR THE DEAF
The following strategies may be helpful for local church leaders:
1. Provide qualified sign language interpreters at centralized churches in urban areas with high concentrations of deaf people.
2. Raise funds to train and employ a Bible worker with fluent sign language skills to work in selected urban areas near churches with interpreted services.
3. Create a long-term goal to establish dedicated signed services for the deaf in a separate room or adjoining building as an annex to a supportive church.
4. Create a scholarship fund to support a suitable person fluent in sign language—particularly a deaf person or couple—to train as a minister to the deaf.
As the World Health Organization has rightly pointed out, “hearing loss cannot and must not continue to be a silent epidemic.” The need is evident and we must ensure that hindrances to hearing the spoken gospel are removed as much as possible.5
1 GBD 2019 Hearing Loss Collaborators, “Hearing Loss Prevalence and Years Lived with Disability, 1990–2019: Findings from the Global Burden of Disease Study 2019,” The Lancet 397 (2021): 996–1009, https://www. thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/ PIIS0140-6736(21)00516-X/fulltext, accessed September 29, 2022.
2 World Health Organization, “Executive Summary,” in Global Costs of Unaddressed Hearing Loss and Cost-Effectiveness of Interventions (Geneva: World Health Organization, 2017), https://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/hand le/10665/254659/9789241512046- eng.pdf, accessed September 29, 2022.
3 Available at “Deaf & Hard of Hearing Ministry Resources,” Adventist Possibility Ministries, accessed February 3, 2023, https://www.possibilityministries.org/resources/deaf-ministry-resources/.
4 See How to Equip Your Church or Venue for People with Hearing Problems.
5 For further detailed information about ministering to the deaf, see targeted articles at Adventist Possibility Ministries, accessed February 3, 2023, https:// www.possibilityministries.org/ministries/deaf/.
Graham Weir, MA Counsl. (Wash.D.C.), Cert. Aud. (SoA) (Syd.), is a retired hearing rehabilitation specialist with a profound hearing loss since a near-fatal attack of meningitis at the age of eight. He serves on the General Conference Adventist Possibility Ministries Taskforce for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing.
Larry R. Evans, DMin, prior to his retirement in October 2022, was the assistant to the General Conference President for Adventist Possibility Ministries at the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Silver Spring, MD, USA.