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Innovations help congregants hear

People with hearing loss are a big percentage of the people with disabilities who come through our doors on Sunday morning.
By Donald E. Skinner
Winter 2009 11.1.09

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trouble hearing (Nicolas Loran/istockphoto)

(Nicolas Loran/istockphoto)

People have always had trouble hearing in churches. When the Rev. William Ellery Channing preached what became known as his famous “Baltimore Sermon” in 1819, defining the essence of American Unitarianism, the acoustics in the church, now known as the First Unitarian Church of Baltimore, were reported to be so bad that most people couldn’t hear him.

Since then, First Unitarian in Baltimore has modified its sanctuary to overcome the acoustics that confronted Channing’s listeners. And it has done even more to make itself welcoming to those who have problems hearing, offering assistive listening devices and an American Sign Language interpreter.

The Rev. Dr. Devorah Greenstein, the Unitarian Universalist Association’s program coordinator for accessibility concerns, said that hearing issues are among the most common disabilities. “We often think a disability has to do with someone sitting in a wheelchair,” she said. “It’s more than that. People with hearing loss are a big percentage of the people with disabilities who come through our doors on Sunday morning.”

She believes that many members of UU congregations who have hearing loss don’t always make it known when they can’t hear. “They don’t necessarily drop out just because they can’t hear,” she said. “But as this issue gets worse for them and as there becomes less and less for them at church, there is a greater likelihood they will stop coming.”

Today, those who need help hearing at First Unitarian have only to ask for a small pocket-sized receiver, part of an assistive listening system that receives an FM signal directly from the church’s sound system. On average, three people each Sunday use one of the receivers, said Jeffry Spangler, sexton and one of the congregation’s 204 members. Church treasurer Clare Milton, 90, uses one of the small receivers regularly. “Without it I could use my hearing aids and hear some of what is said, but I’d miss way too many words,” he said.

The church also regularly hires an American Sign Language interpreter for the benefit of two deaf members.

Emerson UU Church in Canoga Park, California, has an assistive listening system with eight receivers. Six are rented, for a one-time fee, to regular users who maintain them and bring them each Sunday. The other two are available for guests. “We try to be very responsive to anyone with a disability,” said Rhod Zimmerman, a member of the worship committee at Emerson.

“We are very concerned that everyone can hear,” Zimmerman said. “This makes us more focused, to know there are not people in the congregation straining to hear. It makes everybody feel better about church.”

Congregations are increasingly attentive to people with hearing loss, but it takes constant effort on their part, said Greenstein. “When I talk with church leaders they always acknowledge it’s a good idea, but being welcoming is like exercise. You have to keep doing it.” Congregations can borrow and try out assistive listening equipment from the UUA.

Greenstein wants all congregations to have assistive listening systems. She also wants each to have one Pocketalker, a personal device that can be used with or without hearing aids that helps an individual to hear better in one-to-one and group conversations. It allows ministers to have comfortable pastoral conversations with people who are hard of hearing. Individuals can borrow a Pocketalker from Equual Access, an organization for UUs concerned about accessibility issues.


When Khadijat Rashid was looking for a church for herself and her children in 2006 she knew that because she is deaf not every church would meet her needs. Indeed, the first UU congregation she visited didn’t have a ministry to deaf people, but it did recommend she visit the UU Church of Silver Spring, Maryland. There she found a home.

UUCSS began a deaf ministry program almost eight years ago when a family with two deaf members began attending. “We wanted to be responsive to them,” said Janne Harrelson, a member of the congregation. Harrelson knew sign language as did several other church members.

The church made the commitment to have a professional interpreter at one service each Sunday. Volunteers who knew some sign language helped out in the religious education program and at other events. The congregation now commits a minimum of $5,000 to its Deaf Access program annually.

“Everything the church does is accessible to me and I really appreciate that,” said Rashid, who participates in many UUCSS activities. “I don’t feel different per se from any other member. I really feel welcome there.”

About 10 percent of UUCSS members know some limited sign language. In addition, the whole congregation learned to sign the chalice lighting, opening words, and an opening song and do that each Sunday.

“It’s a fabulous feeling when the whole congregation attempts to sign those portions of the service,” Rashid said. “To see everyone make a serious effort to sign the words is a feeling I can’t really adequately verbalize.”

Harrelson said: “Many in the congregation feel that providing access to deaf members and friends really enriches our church community as a whole. It’s something the congregation really values. Even if only one deaf person comes, how would you deny access to that one person?”


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