Your softest whisper finds God’s ear.
More volume, and we too can hear.
In Meeting, please be loud and clear.
—From a poster in the Burlington (Vt.) Meetinghouse
Continued good hearing is one of the things I am especially thankful for recently as I celebrated my seventieth birthday listening to music and enjoying relaxed conversations in a roomful of friends.
The flip side of my gratitude for good hearing is my great sympathy and compassion for many friends and relatives who have not been so lucky. It was painful to watch my aging grandmother and later my father become isolated as they progressively lost their hearing. After a while their costly hearing aids were not much help.
When I was in college, I learned American Sign Language (ASL) in order to communicate with a relative by marriage who was profoundly deaf. Having this skill helped me to make other friends among the deaf and hard-of-hearing community in my town, and I considered ASL interpretation as a career option. Ultimately, I decided against a future as a sign-language interpreter, because I finally realized that I could not stop wishing that those with severe hearing disabilities could hear clearly. I wanted them to be able to enter the realms of music and the spoken word that were so important in my life.
My brief time working with the deaf and hard-of-hearing community did have one lasting effect: it made me more sensitive to the frustrations experienced by the many people who have chronic hearing problems. In group situations where I find myself straining to hear what is being said, I am sure that those with less acute hearing are missing a lot more than I am. In such instances, I usually say something on their behalf or encourage them to advocate for themselves.
I have witnessed many audibility problems at Friends gatherings over the past 20 or so years. Some of these challenges are a direct result of having to use bigger venues, such as colleges and universities, to accommodate the large gatherings of Friends General Conference and many yearly meeting sessions. Auditoriums and gymnasiums may be good for amplified stage programs, but I found it nearly impossible to clearly hear vocal ministry during all-gathering meetings for worship before the adoption of wireless microphones in the late 1990s.
Another, less tractable, problem stems from our tradition of arranging chairs in circles for worship sharing, workshops, and discussions. Beyond encouraging more people to participate, sitting in circles affirms our historic commitment to equality. But in groups larger than five or six, it becomes harder to hear everyone in the circle. Those across from us are often too far away for words said at a normal conversational level to be very audible. Those sitting to our left and right can also be difficult to understand because they are projecting their voices away from us, and we lose the advantage of using our visual sense to observe their facial expressions and body language.
Hearing difficulties tend to get worse when we form these impromptu circles in spaces that aren’t designed for low-volume intimate discussions, such as most college classrooms. Microphones, loudspeakers, or other electronic sound devices aren’t practical in these informal small-group settings.
Sometimes we attempt to escape the distorted sounds of indoor spaces by moving outdoors, weather permitting. But being outside brings a host of other intrusions of the modern world for our ears to deal with: the sounds of lawn mowers, construction equipment, air conditioning units sticking out of nearby windows, passing golf carts, or aircrafts flying overhead.
At the FGC Gathering in 2001, I was in a morning workshop that had been assigned to a classroom with multiple acoustical defects: hard walls and a floor that echoed, a noisy HVAC system, and loud hammering and sawing from construction workers next door. It didn’t help that one of the workshop co-leaders was soft-spoken. Every time I noticed people cupping their ears in an effort to catch what she was saying, I suggested that she try to speak louder and be aware of her habit of dropping her voice at the end of a sentence.
One afternoon I was walking across the campus and ran into an older man I recognized as one of the hearing-challenged participants in my workshop. When I asked why I hadn’t seen him for a couple of days, he explained he had dropped out because it was just too difficult for him to hear.
I decided it was time to take my concern directly to the gathering staff. First, I interviewed a number of Friends that I knew to have significant hearing losses. They all had complaints about poor acoustics and had encountered much insensitivity to hearing problems at Friends gatherings.
I compiled their suggestions into a simply worded flyer (download the flyer here or see below) designed to be handed out at meetings or posted on bulletin boards. After a few years of cordial but unproductive correspondence, I finally got the opportunity to discuss my concerns with gathering staff. FGC decided to publish a shortened version of my handout to include only in the packets of the workshop leaders.
Earlier this year, I witnessed serious audibility problems in my worship-sharing group at New England Yearly Meeting’s mid-year gathering at the Portland (Maine) Meetinghouse. A soft-spoken woman was interrupted with the plea, “Friend, I can’t understand a word you’re saying. I have a hearing loss, so I need you to speak up!”
A bit flustered, the speaker started over. We noticed her trying to throw a little more force into her opening words, but the volume soon descended to its previous subdued level. The hearing-challenged woman sitting across from her interrupted again, “I’m sorry. I still can’t hear you.”
Insufficient voice projection was not the only problem, however. Another worship-sharing group had been assigned to the opposite corner of the same large meeting room. Everyone had to strain to focus on what people in his or her own group were saying. The ability to hear well was also affected by conversations and footsteps filtering in from the hallway, whirring fans, chairs being scooted, papers being shuffled, and doors being opened and closed. These other distractions may not have been as noticeable, but nevertheless they contributed to a general background noise that tended to drown out whatever was said at ordinary conversation levels.
I have since formulated some steps that a yearly meeting might take in the future to improve the experience of those that are hard of hearing:
- Determine potential impediments to good hearing in the evaluation of a proposed meeting site. Take steps to mitigate or correct any impediments, just as you would test and debug audio-visual equipment well ahead of a meeting time.
- Consider providing a handout on better-hearing tips to yearly meeting attendees, similar to the one that is included in workshop leader packets at the FGC Gathering.
- Identify and reach out to those individuals attending the sessions who have a hearing loss. Solicit their input on how their special needs can be met, just as you would do for people with any other disabilities.
- Include questions about hearing difficulties in any post-event evaluations.
A more long-term goal would be to teach Friends how to speak as loudly and as distinctly as conditions and other people’s hearing abilities require. This skill is not, however, one that we should expect people to master overnight, any more than we would expect them to learn how to swim by tossing them into a body of water.
Today, electronic sound amplifiers have largely eliminated the need, as well as the incentive, to vocalize loudly and clearly enough to be heard across a large room or even larger auditorium. Ironically, most concert auditoriums today are not designed to be supportive of unplugged performances.
Our resulting vocal flabbiness may be why many people today tend not to speak up for any length of time in a group setting, even when prompted repeatedly. Such a self-imposed disability parallels the way modern mechanical transportation has unwittingly sapped our willingness and physical ability to walk even short distances.
Most Friends don’t measure up well to students of traditional rhetorical arts, who are shown how diaphragms and vocal folds can be used as virtual trumpets capable of reaching the back rows and rising above competing background noise. They are taught to look for cues that the audience may be having difficulty hearing and to regularly ask for feedback on whether their messages are getting through.
Similar voice-projection exercises might be helpful as part of a unit for a revised Quakerism 101 course, organized around the question, “How did George Fox and other early Friends make themselves heard by the multitudes who gathered at Firbank Fell and other outdoor venues when there were no modern public address systems to assist them?”
In order to succeed so well in their evangelizing efforts, early Friends must have taken more seriously the need to be heard in large groups than most Friends do today. I haven’t read much on this topic in historic Quaker journals, but I found a clue while visiting the old, but still used Friends meetinghouse in Brooklyn, New York. A curved sound reflector located above and slightly behind the facing benches ensures that messages from that section are projected across the room. I found other clues in Colonial-era Friends meetinghouses that I visited in the Massachusetts towns of Dartmouth and New Bedford. Their extensive balconies no doubt were designed to conserve heat by making the worship space more compact, and they also make it more likely that vocalized leadings from the Holy Spirit—much like the old wooden ships that carried George Fox, John Woolman, and others on their perilous missions—will sail smoothly from speaker to listener.