Improving Acoustic Accessibility in Churches

03 August 2020 by Nick Treby, Principal Consultant

Churches aspire to be places that are welcoming for everyone. However, some people find the acoustic environment to be difficult, meaning they either don’t attend at all, or, if they do, struggle to engage with what is going on.

One in eight people in the UK have some degree of hearing loss. This can cover mild age related hearing loss, those who are totally deaf and have no hearing, as well as everything in between. The acoustic environment also matters to people who are autistic, have communication difficulties, are prone to migraine, and those who are hyper-sensitive to noise.

church congregation
One in eight people in the UK have some degree of hearing loss

People with no hearing loss find it extremely difficult to appreciate just how debilitating even a mild hearing loss can be. However, even those people can relate to an experience in a noisy coffee shop or party, where it has been difficult to understand what has been said, or to be understood.

If you cannot hear properly, you cannot engage with the church service, the worship, or even in conversation with someone. Often, people who struggle to hear withdraw, and are not a fully engaged part of the community.

If you ask people at church whether they can hear clearly, you will usually get a mixture of responses. It is common for many to conclude the problem is not sufficiently bad to warrant attention. However, it is likely that people who find the acoustic environment difficult simply do not attend, and so would never be consulted in such a survey. People with hearing loss are sometimes reluctant to admit to a difficulty.

This article is not intended to be an instruction manual for operating a Speech Reinforcement (PA) system; there are plenty of other ways of getting the technical training in that, and it goes without saying that any system should be working, and operated by trained people. Instead, this note is intended to give guidelines as to what can be done to help make church activities more easily accessible to those who cannot hear well. The benefit of these measures is not just to those with hearing loss, but to everyone, as improved acoustic conditions help all people to be more comfortable in the rooms they are occupying. Many of these things are low or no cost and do not require any technical expertise. However, one set of rules does not necessarily fit everyone and so do not forget to also ask people what they find helpful.

Speech

  • Anyone who speaks should use a microphone!

Whilst someone may jump up from the congregation to give an unscheduled notice, often starting with “I don’t need a microphone, as I’ve got a loud voice”, that doesn’t help people with hearing loss, or the housebound listening in on the recording.

microphone in church
Anyone who speaks should use a microphone!

Similarly, prayers and contributions from the congregation can be wholly inaudible, even to those with no hearing loss. Have a microphone available, and create a culture where it is used so all can hear what is said.

  • In many churches, there is no longer an elevated pulpit from which to speak. However, a well-lit and raised platform so the speaker can be clearly seen helps enormously with speech intelligibility, as visual cues and lipreading have a significant benefit, even though many don’t realise that’s what they are doing. It is easier to hear what you can see!
  • The same goes for readers or other participants in the service. They should be encouraged to practice, with a microphone so they get used to using it, learning where it needs to be to pick them up properly.
  • Put the text of any Bible readings you are using on a screen. Do the same with any liturgy, responses, quotes, notices or whatever else you can. Illustrate the sermon with images and text on the screen that will help someone follow it. Make sure they are clear to read. For those who can’t hear clearly, the visual displays are a critical point of access into the service, so prepare them properly to help.
  • There is software becoming available (for mobile phones and tablets, as well as in PowerPoint) that can produce real time subtitles, but make sure it works well, and is not a distraction – voice recognition errors can lead to funny mistakes, which would be a distraction. Perhaps provide a screen in a discrete location, visible to those who need it. You could have some tablet computers available with a suitable app installed to hand out to those who need them.
  • Provide a well-lit, visible location for a sign language interpreter.
  • If video clips or other recordings are used, make sure they are set up properly beforehand and are clear. Often, something which sounds fine on a computer has recording flaws that show up when played through a church PA system.

Music

  • Volume is not everything! High volume is not a solution to being heard better.

High noise levels can be painful and disorientating for many. Children are often seen wearing ear defenders at noisy events – their hearing is more sensitive than adults.

An instrument or singer can be made more audible by turning down the other members of a music group. Lower volumes tend to be more engaging, whilst higher volumes tend to feel more like a concert.

musicians in church
Volume is not everything! High volume is not a solution to being heard better

  • When worship is led by a group of musicians, it is helpful to identify a lead singer or a lead instrument and ensure that is clear so the congregation have a point of focus, and can follow them.
  • Make sure that the lead singer and worship leader are clearly lit, and can be clearly seen – perhaps on a small platform. It is easier to understand what someone is saying when they can be seen.
  • Drummers need to be aware of the influence they have on the whole sound, and play with control appropriate to the circumstances. Even if unamplified, drums can dominate. Drum screens aren’t usually a solution to being too noisy; (they are a technical solution to stop drum noise spilling onto other microphones).

The Room

  • Big echoey rooms (like traditional churches and cathedrals) sound amazing for traditional unamplified church music, but are difficult to understand speech in. Specialist design of a PA system is needed here – generally, making sure the congregants are located close to a loudspeaker, and the loudspeaker volume is not too high helps.

acoustic absorption panels in church
Reverberation can be controlled with the use of acoustic absorption – ceilings, wall panels, hung absorbers

  • For churches that use more contemporary music, and for speech, an acoustically ‘deader’ space will work better (assuming there is a PA System). Reverberation can be controlled with the use of acoustic absorption – ceilings, wall panels, hung absorbers.
  • A space that keeps out noise (such as from the road outside, or from the Sunday School in the next room) is beneficial. Think about what rooms are being used simultaneously; is a noisy room next to one that needs quiet?
  • Some heating and ventilation systems are noisy. Operation of heating/cooling during the service itself can be minimised if the space gets to the right temperature before the service starts.
  • Don’t neglect the welcome area, or the after-service coffee area. These spaces are key areas for communication – generally an acoustically dead room is best, with plenty of sound absorption. When coffee is served in an echoey hall, many people simply cannot participate in conversation, and will go straight home.
  • A quiet room can be identified for after church coffee. Many find this helpful, but this does tend to split people up rather than bring them together; better to ensure the main spaces are all suitable.
  • An induction loop is a technical (albeit low tech) way of helping people who use hearing aids to hear more clearly. Make sure it’s working! Test it regularly, and you can advise people where to sit to get the strongest signal.
  • Smaller rooms where church meetings happen benefit from an absorptive ceiling, and usually some sound absorbent wall paneling. Larger meeting rooms work better if the table and seats are arranged as an oval or circle (to have sight lines) rather than a rectangle. A low acoustically reflective ceiling (less than 3m) above the table helps intelligibility during a meeting, with substantial sound absorption provided through the use of wall panels, and in the ceiling borders.

With thanks to:
The Brewer and Anderson families (Biggleswade Baptist Church)
Martin Hamilton (Spectrum Acoustic Consultants and Christ Church, Bedford)
Sally Shaw (Ideas for Ears)

Improving Acoustic Accessibility in Churches