Real-Time Transcribing: The Best Accommodation for Churches
This is the first in a three-part series about introducing speech-to-text services to churches.
After a few years of transcribing classes for HOH (hard of hearing) students, I formed my own small agency in order to take on freelance assignments. Working for schools was comfortable and familiar, but somewhere along the way, it occurred to me that speech-to-text services are rarely available in churches. This thought wouldn't go away, so I did a little research.
"I ask them to imagine one of every five people sitting in their pews struggling to hear."
I found that, unlike schools, churches are exempt from disability laws. The government ruled that it would be unwise to interfere in church activities, and providing accommodations might be a burden on church budgets. That explains why most other captioning and transcribing agencies haven't pursued this niche.
However, I began noticing that every church I drove past had a handicapped parking space (or two or three) and wheelchair ramps. Obviously, church leadership recognizes their civic and moral obligation to accommodate people with disabilities, despite the legal exemption. But what are they doing to accommodate people with hearing loss? The more I thought about this, the more it bothered me. Before long, my agency's focus had shifted from schools to churches.
According to Johns Hopkins, 1 in 5 Americans reports some degree of hearing loss.
When I talk to pastors, I ask them to imagine one of every five people sitting in their pews struggling to hear. That's a significant portion of any congregation. It's easy to see that accommodations are needed. But what options are available? Which option is best?
When choosing an accommodation, it's important to consider that there are different types and levels of hearing loss. Some people are born deaf. Some hearing loss is age-related. Some is the result of illness or injury. Hearing loss may be mild, moderate, or severe. It may affect one or both ears. It may occur suddenly or gradually. These factors affect the way different people cope with their hearing loss.
Gallaudet University conducted research on the number of Americans who use sign language (ASL) but was unable to find reliable figures. The best estimates are between half a million and two million Americans. This means that among the 48 million Americans with hearing loss, 75% to 90% of them do not understand sign language.
When choosing an accommodation, it's important to consider that there are different types and levels of hearing loss.
It takes time and effort to become fluent in sign language. Those whose hearing loss occurred after learning spoken language and establishing a hearing identity are less likely to learn sign language than those who were born deaf or lost their hearing at a young age.
A friend of mine who was born deaf teaches lip reading. He acknowledges that lip reading is helpful, but only 60% of speech is visible to a lip reader. The other sounds are made inside the mouth or throat where they can't be seen.
Lip reading requires some sensitivity on the part of the speaker. The lip reader must be able to see the speaker's face. This can be difficult when the pastor wanders through the aisles, with his or her face in shadow or head bent in prayer.
What about hearing aids?
According to the National Institute for Deafness and Communication Disorders (NICDC), less than a third of people over age 70 who could benefit from hearing aids have ever worn them. Among younger adults (ages 20 to 69), the number drops to 16%.
The more I thought about this, the more it bothered me. Before long, my agency's focus had shifted from schools to churches.
This may be partly due to the fact that hearing aids are outrageously expensive. In 2008, Consumer Reports found that hearing aids cost between $1,200 and $2,700 per ear. Prices may have gone up since that report. The least expensive model I've heard of cost $2,500. A friend of mine recently paid $8,500 for his new pair of hearing aids. The cost of hearing aids may or may not be covered by health insurance plans.
Those who do use hearing aids can experience problems (such as feedback) between a church's sound system and their hearing aid. In addition, the hearing aid amplifies everything — the A/C unit, the sound of shuffling feet, etc. — so it takes practice to focus on the sounds one does want to hear while tuning out everything else.
There are assistive listening devices (FM units) that broadcast sound from a microphone directly to a hearing aid. This works well for some, but there are problems with that, as well. The user must have a hearing aid equipped with a T-coil. The costs to the church of purchasing, installing, and shielding the system to prevent interference from metal in the building and spillover to adjacent rooms can easily be a five-digit expense. Churches may purchase the devices but neglect to keep them organized, maintained, and sanitized. There may be a limited number of units available and in working order. There may be no one available to retrieve the units from storage or train users how to operate them.
Clearly, an accommodation is needed that works equally well for everyone, without requiring any special skills or equipment (other than the ability to read). Real-time transcription is the only accommodation that fulfills these requirements and is, therefore, the best accommodation for churches wishing to provide accessibility to their members with hearing loss.