Not just grandpa: A field guide to hard of hearing wedding guests

Guestpost by Aimee Chou on Oct. 9th
Photo of Echo Greenlee courtesy of

Photo of Echo Greenlee courtesy of

Trying to spot a hard of hearing guest(s) that doesn't use Sign Language at your wedding is like scoping out a "Where's Waldo" scene or bird watching with an Audubon guide in your back pocket. The usual suspects are there… but it just might take a while for your peepers to pinpoint them amidst all the candelabras, floral arrangements, and hullaballoo that are par for the course at a wedding.

That's because, despite what we covered in "Waving the white napkin, and 7 other things you see at Deaf weddings", not all deaf and hard of hearing guests are "Big D" deaf. We don't all grok the cultural meaning of white napkins, nor use sign language in our lives… let alone at weddings!

Let's do a hypothetical people-watching experiment. Instead of a red Waldo hat or striped yellow-red plumage, the signs of a hard of hearing guest are much more subtle in a wedding that lacks accessibility features:

  • Wedding Guest A: As the best man reveals a colorful tidbit about the red-faced groom's past, everyone laughs uproariously… except the hard of hearing wedding guest A. His "lost" expression doesn't change; he's shuffling bits of Smoked Salmon on Brioche around on his plate. He may begin spacing out and stop looking towards the speakers. To the untrained eye, his behavior may be mistaken for apathy.
  • Wedding Guest B: You strike up a conversation with a white-haired gentleman sitting in the front row near you. "How do you know the bride?" you ask. "Why yes, it is wonderful weather," he replies cheerfully. Then his wife sighs in frustration: "He won't even wear his hearing aids to his own granddaughter's wedding!"
  • Wedding Guest C: Exceptionally attentive listener during 1:1 conversation. Is it a future Oprah Winfrey in the making? Or is it a guest in survival mode, speech reading the modern-day equivalent of a Klingon beard?
  • Wedding Guest D: A pre-teen is visibly straining to speech read and hear the toasts. Her eyes dart between those toasting the couple, and her parents (who are mouthing words to her in an exaggerated fashion). It slowly occurs to you that they are helping their pre-teen fill in the blanks.
  • Wedding Guest E: Unusually short attention span for an eight-year-old-child. Suddenly, you behold an unusual plumage… is that a brightly colored hearing aid mold? Or an implant?

Offbeat or traditional, one tie binds all weddings: Guests of all races, needs, ages, and temperaments tend to show up. And according to the Center for Hearing and Communication, approximately 12% of the U.S. population, or 38 million Americans, have a significant hearing loss.

So if your Big Fat Heterogenous Wedding guest list tops 200 people, you can reasonably expect at least 20 guests to struggle, to some extent, to hear the dialogue that hearing guests take for granted.

Deaf event planner Sheena McFeely, the creator of The Pearls Awards, is no stranger to having to "wing it" when she's been invited to a wedding where no reasonable accommodations have been made for hard of hearing guests. So, her advice to accessibility-conscious brides, grooms, and planners everywhere: "When in doubt, ask. Why? Everyone's needs are so different… their ways of solving their needs are different as well."

Indeed, no two hard of hearing guests are alike. Never assume that your late-deafened Grandfather can understand a Sign Language interpreter, or that your five-year-old niece with a cochlear implant can read real-time captioning from a projector screen.

But, as our checklist above shows, not everyone is as comfortable or open about having hearing loss. Consider the hard of hearing guest A, who is known to be the most gregarious member of your extended family. After years of hard rock concerts and punching in the hours at a steel mill, Uncle Todd joined the ever-growing demographic of late-deafened adults. But your proud uncle wouldn't mention that in holiday cards, so these life transitions can be as subtle as they are socially challenging.

What to do?

Print outs:

An Offbeat Bride reader made a suggestion that we love:

I have just decided to have a few special print outs of the entire ceremony for the few that I know who are hard of hearing. My grandma doesn't know sign language (don't you dare say anything about her being hard of hearing when she is around) but this totally made me think about her and how sad she would be if she couldn't hear everything.

Real-time captioning:

You could hire a sign language interpreter in hopes of catering to the unique needs of the sign language-fluent guests. Or, for guests who don't sign, you could look into hiring a Communication Access Realtime Translation (CART) professional to type out the ceremony and events verbatim in realtime. By renting, borrowing or purchasing a projector, every word can be shown on-screen. Just be sure to ask your captioner to use a font and background color that compliments your wedding theme! (Hint: Avoid lime green-on-blue).

Curious about finding a local (or even remote) CART provider for your fully accessible wedding? Check out the National Court Reporters Association for its online CART Provider Directory.

Ask a guest to give conversational highlights:

What if you have a hard of hearing guest who's your age and joining either your hen party or bachelor's party? Whether you're having your last hurrah in Sin City strip club or a girls' day at the spa, remember that group conversations are incredibly taxing on even the most accomplished speech readers (See: Wedding Guest C). They struggle with dim lights, blaring music at the nightclub, and having to speech read people whom they've just met… all while feeling like the party pooper who keeps asking people to repeat themselves.

Solution: Before the party, ask another friendly guest to be an ad hoc "advocate" — to write down quick notes and/or explain highlights of the group conversation. To a hard of hearing person who has to self-advocate constantly, it's a huge relief to know that someone else is also on the same page.

Have pre-wedding events that are activities:

You may even want to structure your pre-wedding party such that it's less conversation-oriented and more action-oriented… such as playing golf, geo-caching, or having ice-breaker games with two-person teams. Hard of hearing people function much better in one-on-one conversations.

For the youngest guests:

What of hard of hearing guest D? There's age-induced hearing loss, and then there's congenital hearing loss: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, each year in the United States, more than 12,000 babies are born with a hearing loss. And mild hearing loss can cause a child to miss as much as 50% of classroom discussion.

Since weddings and classes require a similar amount of hearing and/or speech reading effort, consider alternatives. Children and young children may not keep up with the reading (and attention) demands of real-time transcription (CART), so you may want to have other forms of visual entertainment on hand.

Maybe you could order some customized, written-narrative coloring books depicting the story of how you and the Mister-to-be came to the point of wedded bliss. This could be a hit with the adult crowd, too!

The golden years… and not-so-golden ears:

Inviting your grandparents, and a handful of other octogenarians who pinched your cheeks when you were a baby? Expect some of the over-age-65 crowd — 30 to 40 percent, specifically — to struggle to some extent with hearing the toasts, ceremony, and reception chatter.

The digital hearing aid industry aggressively courts the senior citizen crowd, but not all seniors are receptive to their message. Again, as with the hypothetical Guest A, be subtle in your accommodations offers: Print out a few copies of the entire ceremony, and make them available in the church foyer or near the wedding venue entrance. Add a statement like "Printed copies of the ceremony are available — simply request one when you RSVP" to your invitations. After all, it's just like planning your catered menu with options for gluten-free, kosher, diabetic, or low-fat diets.

Whether your solution is Communication Access Realtime Translation, a customized coloring book, a Sign Language interpreter, or print-outs, you are almost always doing the right thing when it's out of consideration to your hard of hearing guest's unique needs. Asking your hard of hearing wedding guest "what's the best way for us to help?" means you've won half the battle.

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About Aimee Chou

Aimee is hard of hearing freelance bard who dishes up weekly Deaf Culture news on deafREVIEW (stalk her online alias, Le Petit Chouette, for reviews). A former Parlor billiards Vixen, she lives in Seattle with her sweetheart ... who is patiently waiting for her to propose to him.