Uplift Access: Uplifting Accessibility In and Beyond Unitarian Universalism

September is Deaf Awareness Month

A silhouette of a hand signing “I love you” in ASL, filled with colorful heart emojis. The palm is facing the viewer, with the pinky, pointer, and thumb extended, and the middle and ring fingers folded over the palm.

By Barbara F. Meyers

Ministry is my second career. Many years ago, when I was in grad school preparing for my first career as a software engineer. My Research Director was Dr. Dan Berry who had severe hearing loss.He wore hearing aids and relied heavily on lip-reading to understand what people were saying. When he was speaking to someone, he faced them directly and concentrated on their face to be able to lip-read what they were saying.I found that quite special because he really tried to be present in the moment with you when he was listening. I used to marvel at how accurate his understanding was. I never had trouble getting him to understand me or me to understand him.

Later in my mid-thirties, I realized that I was having trouble hearing what people were saying and I had to ask them to repeat it. I spoke with Dan and he told me to have my hearing tested by an audiologist.When I did, I learned that I had hearing loss especially at high frequencies, and I started wearing a hearing aid which helped a lot. Over time, my hearing has been slowly getting worse, and I now wear two hearing aids and have learned that I need to supplement it with lip reading to understand speech. Having captions on movies and online meetings is essential for me to understand what is being said.

There are several categories of hearing loss, and each has way different way that people with them can cope with them.

Mild hearing loss: A person may hear speech, but soft sounds are hard to hear, such as whispers or the consonants on the end of words like 'shoes' or 'fish'.

Moderate hearing loss: A person may hear another person speaking at a normal level but have difficulty understanding what he or she is saying. You might hear the vowels within a sentence, but not hear the consonants. This makes comprehending a sentence almost impossible.

Severe hearing loss: A person may hear little to no speech of a person talking at a normal level and only some loud sounds. Very loud sounds, such as a car horn, wouldn't startle one the same way as it would to a person with normal hearing.

Profound hearing loss: A person doesn't hear any speech — only very loud sounds — and you feel the vibrations of only the loudest of sounds.

Some hearing losses are present at birth, like Dan’s, and some develop over time, like mine. It is also possible to have sudden hearing loss.

My hearing loss is between mild and moderate hearing loss, and Dan’s hearing loss is between severe and profound.

The way that people cope with hearing loss differs. Using hearing aids, lip-reading and captions works for me for most things. If I am in a large group, microphones are essential for me to hear.

Some people with severe or profound hearing loss will learn ASL and join a culture, called Deaf Culture which consists of people who also communicate with ASL.

Not all people choose to do so. Dan told me that he was against people with hearing problems learning ASL because they wouldn’t be able to communicate with people in the larger community who didn’t know ASL. I know that this view is not shared by many people who are deaf.

My experience of coping with my hearing loss in UU settings, in my congregation and in UUA and UUMA meetings, has had its ups and downs. Microphones are important and when I ask that they be used, people generally comply, and I don’t have to ask again. In Zoom meetings, ubiquitous since Covid, I have sometimes had to explain to the leaders of groups how to enable captions.After I have done this, things generally work out well for me. One thing that has been difficult is understanding people when they are wearing masks, because I can’t lip-read. This is a difficult situation because I understand that people wear masks to keep themselves safe from covid. I especially like it when I don’t have to be the one asking for captions or microphones because it is built into the culture of the congregation.

Here are some suggestions on how you can observe the Deaf Awareness Month:

  • Learn about inclusion and accessibility, including the importance of providing captioned content or sign language interpreters in your congregation’s meetings.
  • Discover ways to promote the rights of deaf people and access to education and technologies.
  • Understand that deaf and hard of hearing individuals are just as capable and able as hearing individuals.