Leader Resource 5: Welcoming Participants Who Are Hard Of Hearing
These suggestions are designed to help your workshops be more welcoming and inclusive. Please refer to them as needed to adapt activities throughout the program.
Hearing impairments affect people of all ages and range from mild to severe. Wearing hearing aids can help some, but not all, people who have a hearing loss. At their best, hearing aids do not "solve" the problems of hearing loss. Hearing aids make sounds louder but not necessarily clearer.
Most hearing loss interferes with a person's ability to understand speech, so people who are hard of hearing often also rely on lip reading (speech reading) to help them understand spoken language. A hard of hearing person may jokingly say "Let me put on my glasses so I can hear you."
People who consider themselves Deaf (with an upper-case 'D') regard Deafness as a culture with its own language — American Sign Language (ASL) — rather than as a disability. Most people who become deaf as adults do not learn sign language but rely on speech reading. ASL-fluent Deaf persons are likely to request the services of a professional interpreter for participation in adult religious education workshops.
- Ask self-identified hard of hearing persons where they would like to be seated. Ask other people to move if the best position is already taken.
- Many people who are hard of hearing rely on speech reading to some extent. Always face hard of hearing persons when you are talking to the group so that they can see your mouth move.
- When speaking, position yourself so that your face is in the light, not in the shadow.
- When speaking, take care to avoid the common habits of talking while facing your notes or while your hand is in front of your face.
- Multiple voices at the same time make a difficult acoustic environment for many people who are hard of hearing. Try to prevent multiple people from talking at once, and don't permit side conversations.
- When a person who is hard of hearing is participating in a dyad or small group activity, offer the pair or group the option of moving to a quiet place in another room to do their conversing.
- Make sure there is good lighting throughout your room and that facilitators can be in a good position relative to the light source.
- Try to select a meeting room that is carpeted. Bare walls and floors make sounds reverberate.
- Heater blowers, air conditioners, and other sources of background noise (such as people in an adjacent kitchen talking and rattling dishes) can be big problems for people who are hard of hearing. Work to minimize or eliminate background noise in your meeting room.
- Arrange seating in a circle, or arrange tables into a square so that people can see one other's faces.
- If you have a high-pitched voice, lower the pitch if you can. Higher pitches are harder to understand.
- Speak clearly, without mumbling your words. However, you don't have to talk loudly or exaggerate the way you speak.
- If something you say is not heard, don't repeat it word for word. Instead, rephrase the idea using different words.
- When you change the topic, give a verbal cue, such as "Now I'd like to talk about . . ." People who are hard of hearing often depend on conversational context to get clues about words they've missed.
- Provide visual information using newsprint or whiteboards. Have one person write on the newsprint or whiteboard and a second person (facing the group) voice what is being written.
- Provide printed handouts (in both regular and large print format), such as copies of any stories that you are telling, for participants who need them.
Welcoming Requires Continual Attention
It is a credit to you that a person who is hard of hearing trusts you enough to come to your workshop. Many people who are hard of hearing avoid such situations because of the communication difficulties, embarrassment, frustration, and impatience that are often encountered.
Imagine this scenario: As you're leading the workshop, you and the participants are engrossed in easy back-and-forth communication about deep, personal topics. Conversation is intense; voices drop as people reveal private, never-before-spoken thoughts. Three people speak at once in a fluid, back-and-forth way, while two people at the end of the table have a conversation with each other about something personal.
Meanwhile, the person who is hard of hearing is trying to listen to you, separate the background voices from what you are saying, and feel confident enough to ask you to repeat something you have said to the whole group — all while having a meaningful religious education experience. For a person who is hard of hearing, the impulse is often to avoid being a bother — to withdraw, give up, pretend to hear what is going on, and perhaps not come to the next session.
As a leader, it's up to you to control the workshop situation. Making sure that only one person is talking at a time, that participants speak up, and so on makes for an environment that is good for everyone's learning.