AN ELDERLY friend confides with sorrow, and a high level of frustration, that she is about to change churches, and that she has had to give up the weekly Bible-study group to which she has always been a lively and thoughtful contributor. The induction loop in her present church is rarely working to a consistent standard, and, in small-group discussion in someone’s home, it is hard to hear the speaker, and wearying to try to follow the argument.
She is far from alone in this experience. One in six of the UK population suffers from acquired mild, moderate, or sometimes severe hearing loss, and the higher proportion of these are older people. These are the hard of hearing (as opposed to the deaf community), who will not generally rely on lip-reading, or be users of British Sign Language, but who are part of the hearing world and trying to stay in that world.
Hearing aids — basically amplifiers fed by a microphone — pick up all sounds. They were not designed to be used in churches, unless an induction loop has also been fitted, Don Mason, of the hearing-loss charity Open Ears, suggests. The charity works among people with various degrees of impaired hearing to provide fellowship, Bible teaching, and pastoral care in the UK and developing countries.
The sound of even a single voice becomes lost in a large building, he says, and echo can make it difficult to understand the words being used. The loop, which acts as a radio receiver, is designed to reduce confusing background noise to a minimum, and can be easily installed in living rooms as well as public buildings; but it has to be properly checked, and regularly maintained.
That is the clear message, too, from the Revd Steve Morris, the discipleship and ministerial development officer (deaf and disabled people) in Gloucester diocese, who has years of experience with church loop and sound-enhancement systems. In many churches, the loop is rarely checked for how well it is working, he says. Mains adapters can develop a buzz, which may not be noticeable over the speakers, but which can carry along the induction loop wire; cables can get frayed, so that just a touch can give loud volume or high popping sounds; and contacts can oxidise and corrode.
Mr Morris bought his own personal listener for monitoring purposes (at a cost of about £75), and, in one church where people were complaining that the loop was not working, discovered that — although the output from the mixing desk was indeed correct — the loop amplifier had been accidentally turned down.
”That’s a thousand times better,” one of the complainants said with relief, leading Mr Morris to repeat the mantra “Nothing about us without us”: always consult the users of any system.
WHEN it comes to installing or upgrading microphones, a UHF-quality system has replaced the earlier VHF radio microphones, and at much the same price. Graphic equalisers can help to eliminate feedback in a church with overly bright acoustics, or to brighten up the sound in one in which acoustics are dull and lifeless, he suggests. He notes that some sound installers will let churches try out a variety of microphones to see what will work best, or have a set range that they know will work in that environment.
Microphones with an excellent pick-up range are now available, allowing the speaker to stand six or even 18 inches away. And Mr Morris has a piece of simple advice: do not leave batteries in radio microphones from Sunday to Sunday. They will soon decay.
The chaplain with the deaf community in Bristol diocese and national adviser for deaf ministry, Canon Gill Behenna, urges: “Let’s make a church service that is intentionally inclusive for those for whom we would otherwise have to make adjustment. Sunday by Sunday, you would check the loop system. Every time you added an instrument to your band, you would make sure it wasn’t interfering. If you add a new microphone or new electronic amplification, just check it’s still OK.”
Above all, she says, “we need to have an attitude change so that the ‘special’ becomes normal. When churches are made aware of the issues, there is a lot of willingness to engage with it. But, too often, it doesn’t even occur to churches to consider people with other needs.
”It’s much wider than hard-of-hearing people, to be honest. People say things like ‘This is how we do our service: how can we improve it for hard-of-hearing people?’ instead of thinking, ‘If we changed our service so that hard-of-hearing and deaf people were included, that would benefit everybody.’”
Give mind to pace, rhythm, and space, she says. “Hard-of-hearing people sometimes come to deaf events that are all in sign language, but they have interpretation into English. They say it’s lovely, because it is all such a nice pace. You wait until people have understood and are with you before you move on to the next thing. That’s key. Things shouldn’t drag, but I hate to be in
a church where it’s just rushed through from one thing to another.”
AND technology, of course, is only as good as the people using it. Clear, measured speech without over-emphasis is what gets through in a church situation. People who speak too fast, speak at the same time as someone else, or who shout or mumble, are difficult to hear; an accent, too, can sometimes be a barrier to lip-reading. And, as the assistant chaplain to deaf and hard-of-hearing people in Oxford diocese, the Revd Ben Whitaker, points out, prayers are sometimes said at the back of churches, in the body of the congregation, making lip-reading impossible.
Beards are not a great help, he suggests, tactfully. Pulpits may be uplit, which is unhelpful. Light, or a window, behind the person who is talking, puts the face in shadow, and makes it more difficult to read lips: the light should always be in front of the speaker, and people should have a clear line of sight to the speaker, who should always face forward and remain in one place.
”It’s good to encourage people to be closer to the celebrant or preacher as well, though they can be reticent about that,” Mr Whitaker says. He is familiar with expressed embarrassment about not being able to hear, and wants people who are struggling with hearing loss to be open about it, if they can.
”As people become increasingly hard of hearing, they tend to withdraw from groups and stop coming to church altogether,” he confirms. “I think, in my experience, when people do that, they are withdrawing from other social activities as well: it’s often an education about what else is going on for them.
”They might tend towards isolation, and lose contact with people, and that often leads to psychological problems — perhaps depression, and loneliness. It’s a downward spiral; so the more awareness there is about all this, the better. To have a hearing loss is nothing to be ashamed about. In a group, they shouldn’t have to be worried about saying something that has already been said.”
It is a big problem, he acknowledges. The number of people with hearing loss in Oxfordshire is estimated at 87,500; there are nine million in the UK. Some acquire lip-reading skills, but this is proved to be challenging and tiring, as, typically, only 30 per cent of sounds are easily lip-readable.
Mr Whitaker confirms that. “An experiment I do with people is to say the sentence, ‘It’s a quiet Christmas. I enjoyed it,’ and then, ‘It’s
a white Christmas. I had jaundice.’ Those two sentences have the
same lip patterns, which illustrates
how difficult it is to rely on lip-reading.”
People speaking in church need to keep their head up, and project their voice; and all agree that they should never think themselves above using a microphone. “People must have the right kind of attitude: it’s not a matter of putting up with someone because they are hard of hearing,” Mr Morris emphasises.
The problems for hard-of-hearing people can be just as acute in small-group situations, where people tend to talk across each other, and dive into a conversation when they think of something. Hosts in private homes may put on table lamps rather than the main light, for cosiness: an even light is much better for seeing faces and identifying speakers. Praying to the floor is no good for hard-of-hearing people. Background music while prayers are being said is unhelpful. And loops can be fitted in homes, just as in church buildings, at no great cost.
IT ALL comes back to people and attitudes, though. Tracy Williamson, who pays tribute to Open Ears, says: “Find out from the deaf or hard-of-hearing person what helps them. I think many churches feel they have done their bit by installing a loop, but, for someone like me, who needs everything written down, that’s no help. Just someone being willing to make a few notes for a deaf person as the service progresses can make a huge difference.”
Mr Morris would call these “pew buddies”: people who sit close to someone who is hard of hearing, and can point out what stage in the service has been reached — which eucharistic prayer is going to be used, for example, and on what page — or jot down anything that has been missed. Sermon notes, too, are useful, he suggests, even if they comprise just a few bullet-points. If PowerPoint is used, white text on a dark background, with type that is at least 16-point and in a sans-serif fount, is preferred.
Jesus is the heart of worship, and all this matters greatly, Mary Bucknall, of Open Ears, says. “Our deepest need is to love and be loved,” she concludes. “Within their church, deaf and hard-of-hearing people can be isolated, misunderstood, lonely, unable to follow and participate in churches and house groups, and unable to take part in social occasions.”
Help is available to churches. The DAC will always advise where technology is involved, Mr Morris says, even where no faculty is required. Churches for All runs a course, Enabling Church, which includes an introduction to deafness. It was first run as a pilot in Lichfield diocese, in 2014, and is available to all.
Half the dioceses have someone who is an intentional chaplain to the deaf and hard of hearing; others have provision of some sort, but a few are without any provision at all. That saddens Canon Behenna, who concludes, “It means they are missing out on mission opportunities — and the riches which this group of people can bring.”
How to be helpful, in brief
Loop systems should be regularly checked and properly maintained and adjusted
• Don’t leave batteries in radio microphones from Sunday to Sunday
• Give thought to the pace, and rhythm, and space of a service
• Aim for clear, measured speech without over-emphasis
Bear in mind that lip-reading is impossible if prayers are said at the back of churches, or in the body of the congregation
To facilitate lip-reading, the light should always be in front of the reader/speaker, who should face forward and remain in one place
Readers and speakers in church needs to keep their head up and project their voice
“Pew buddies” can be invaluable, as can sermon notes (even a few bullet points)
If PowerPoint is used, white text on a dark background, type that is at least 16-point and a sans serif font are all preferred
Above all, “Nothing about us without us”: always consult the users of any system