by Erika A. Hewitt, UU Minister
“At a recent ministers’ meeting I attended, the culture was such that when someone starting to speak didn’t have a mic, multiple people would say, ‘Please use the mic.’ I can’t tell you how much that meant to me, not to be the one complaining about not being able to hear. That was real inclusion.” —Rev. Barbara Meyers
One of ableism’s most sinister characteristics is the portrayal, both conscious and unconscious, of able bodies as the preferred norm. In the words of Rev. Suzanne Fast, this “reinforces societal attitudes that people with disabilities are worth less” than those with able bodies.
Regrettably, this devaluing of people with disabilities occurs with dismaying frequency in our Unitarian Universalist congregations and organizations. One of its most prevalent forms is the phrase, “I don’t need a microphone.”
One religious leader—a UU ministerial candidate who asked not to be named, but who has a hearing disability—explains, “When a mic is being used at a meeting and someone looks at it and says, ‘Do we really need this?’ I feel outright anger. That person just asked if people like me really exist and demanded that we defend ourselves.”
Failing to use a microphone, in other words, is a form of exclusion. “When I’m excluded,” our anonymous leader continues, “I feel weary, frustrated, and invisible. It’s as though I’m on the other side of a plate glass window from the room where almost everyone else is, and they don’t even notice that I’m stuck outside of their conversation.”
To all of those who have trouble hearing, these are the messages you’re sending when you say, “I don’t need a microphone” (or just don’t bother using one):
- “I can hear fine, and everyone is just like me.”
- “I’m assuming that everyone can hear me, so it’s your problem if you can’t.”
- “My belief that ‘I can project’ matters more to me than your ability to hear.” “My discomfort in hearing my own amplified voice is more important than your need to be included.”
- “If you really want me to use a microphone, you’ll have to assert yourself to request and/or justify that need (which will likely be uncomfortable).”
- “I am willing to exclude people.”
These messages that we send are often at odds with our intentions to be inclusive. For those who wish to practice more effective accessibility for those with hearing disabilities, here are some guiding principles and suggestions for congregational leaders:
- Understand that hearing aids and other hearing-assistance devices do not correct hearing as completely as glasses correct vision. Hearing aids are able to amplify or compress sound according to what’s quiet, painful, or potentially damaging to the auditory nerve, but they don’t perform perfectly. For instance, a storyteller who highly varies their pitch and volume is difficult to hear: when they get quiet, hearing aids amplify accordingly, and then if they get loud, it hurts and overloads the hearing aids. Drama is great, but some predictability in range and loudness helps a lot.
- If someone needs you to repeat something, and especially if they have to ask twice, change your wording.
- Repeat critical information in different ways. For example, “Our hymn is number three hundred fifty-two. Three five two is the number of our hymn.”
- Minimize the layering of words and music at the same time (e.g., a sermon delivered with piano music as a backdrop). “Hearing aids switch into music mode,” says one hard of hearing person, “and you might as well be talking with a pillow over your face.”
- The Time for All Ages becomes more accessible when the minister or storyteller repeats into the mic any comments, questions, or answers the children offer. Similarly, repeat un-amplified questions or comments from the floor of a meeting.
- People speaking while facing another direction are harder to hear, and impossible to lip read. This makes sharing of Joys and Sorrows challenging. One solution is for a person with normative hearing to take notes and share them with the caring circle and minister(s) after each service.
- When possible, have someone carry a second microphone to the people speaking; cultivate patience to wait for the microphone.
- Encourage others to speak up and do something when the needs of a person with a disability have not been considered or have been unintentionally limited. When someone says “I don’t need a microphone,” please consider being a good ally and taking action. It can mean so much to those who would otherwise be excluded, it can educate someone who needs to be educated, and it can mean a lot to you, too.
- If you own your building, hearing loops  can be profoundly helpful to those with hearing disabilities.
We know that a third of adults between 65 and 74 years old have hearing loss, and half of those over 75 years of age do. We also know that hearing loss is a commonly reported disability among Unitarian Universalists. Responding considerately and compassionately to hearing loss and helping others learn to do so is a good investment—in your own quality of life or that of someone you love.
Thanks to Rev. Suzanne Fast, Rev. Barbara Meyers, and an anonymous ministerial candidate for contributing to this post.