The Revd Victoria Barlow, Curate in the Christ the King benefice in Redditch, has written this blog to help parishes support those with hearing loss to engage fully with online fellowship and worship.

This is a time when we are all learning about isolation. We are all experiencing it for ourselves, and facing the ups and downs of the different days. Even the most introverted among us are beginning to long for small talk!

As church families, we have perhaps become even more aware of the feelings held by those who are isolated through being homebound, or by not being online. We have reached deep for new and creative ways to connect. I celebrate this enormously and truly believe it will bear gifts for the future. Each of our personal situations, and those of our church families, loved ones, and communities has presented different challenges, and different opportunities to reflect, to become more empathic, to be creative in loving, and to reach out.

As a deaf person, who lipreads, this time has certainly had its challenges. Communication is often a shared task within ministry; as groups of colleagues we work together to create better accessibility in our parish and beyond. Often, we find ourselves surprised at how these new practises make things better for us all. No one wants to be staring at a speaker with a bright light or sunshine behind them, we all benefit from clearer speech and from the courteous manners of ordered discussion without too many speakers at once; room layout helps everyone and better practise in not speaking with faces obscured enables better communication... the list goes on. As a deaf person I am pushed toward physical meetings rather than voice calls, which often becomes a joy, creating strong relationships and enabling us to make time for each other in a very clear way.

In this time... there has been a sudden flourishing of voice calls, and of video calls and worship. It is easy to feel that one cannot contribute, cannot be included. Lip reading is exhausting and draws very much on context, and on being able to see clear details of lip, mouth and throat movement. Lip reading on screen is virtually impossible, especially if the connection is variable, which, face it, it usually is. I found myself unable to participate in voice and video calls, cut off from worship, from meetings and discussions within my colleagues and friends. It’s resulted in an amazing sense of dislocation, frustration and a decent bash to the self-esteem.

Bishop Martin, our Bishop of Dudley, discovered that skype has free subtitles, and is ideal for a one to one conversation. I thank him for that, and commend it to you as a platform. He gave me enormous hope when I had given up. Skype, Microsoft Teams and Google Meet all offer free subtitling as standard, but they are all pretty useless in action as a meeting forum... there are reasons why we have all resorted to Zoom.

Meanwhile... my sister and brother priests in the Sodality of Mary, a dispersed religious community to which I have the honour of belonging, would not take no for an answer on this. They researched, shared my frustration and sorrow, and finally came up with a way of enabling subtitles on Zoom, so long as you have the ‘pro’ package. They also, with me, hammered out a set of guidelines for good practise. They are transformative.

I suddenly felt human, included, and once more able to connect and share in others’ gifts, and perhaps even to share my gifts with them. I am now able to participate in online Zoom worship with communities. One of them said to me... “thank you for reminding us that inclusion takes many forms”. We have a gospel that calls us to be creative and inclusive, and that tells us we are the richer for working in vulnerability and diversity.

If Zoom is not an appropriate forum for you, or if you do not have the pro package... please consider making a typed script available, or sending notes and messages to aid communication and looking at the guidelines below in order to offer as good communication as possible. I assure you the hearing amongst you in your communities will be as grateful as the deaf.

Sisters and brothers, please consider exploring this with your communities – one in three people experience some sort of hearing loss; it is a major area of accessibility, especially perhaps among our older demographic. Reaching out in honesty and accessibility is our calling as Christians, and this not only sends a clear and prophetic message to society at large, but is a huge warm cwtch of love to those who are frustrated and excluded.

Mthr. Victoria

Top tips for helping those struggling with hearing to engage with video conferencing.

  • Install the ‘rev’ live captioning app on the host’s Zoom... it must be enabled by the host, it cannot be enabled by participants. It requires pro-zoom, but is free: https://t.co/B88Zz1xoJJ?amp=1
  • Please speak clearly and relatively slowly (as if you are in church, or on stage, rather than as in normal conversation)
  • Please face the camera directly if you are speaking
  • Make sure there is not light behind you (ie a window or lamp) and that your face is lit without silhouette or shadows
  • Avoid touching your mouth or face or obscuring your lips in any other way
  • Although it is often natural to bow your head to pray, please don’t do so when leading. It is perfectly OK to bow for the doxology or the Sacred Name as the context is evident.
  • You may need to think about camera angle so that lips are not obscured by your name or the captioning
  • 80% or so of lip reading is contextual, so unexpected or unknown words, especially names or places or people, can be impossible, and sudden changes of subject are challenging – use the chat facility to type in proper names or hints as you speak
  • In the main session, allow the host to chair the meeting. Turn all microphones off unless speaking so that the camera does not jump away from the speaker due to unexpected sounds.
  • The break-out rooms do not have captions enabled, so extra care must be taken there. Ideally the Deaf participants should return to the main room as a ‘break out’ room, so that Captions can be maintained. This will need to be announced in advance, so when participants are moved by zoom to a breakout room, they can return themselves to the main room.
  • Keeping subtitles on for the leader’s use enables to see what may have not been picked up and what may need further explanation.