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

October 9 | Guest post by Aimee Chou
Photo of Echo Greenlee courtesy of #deaffriendly.com
Photo of Echo Greenlee courtesy of #deaffriendly.com

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.

  1. Thank you for this! I am hard of hearing due to severe, chronic ear infections and several surgeries on my ears when I was younger (including one that had a very likely side effect of my not waking up, I'll gladly take the hearing loss over that outcome). I am now taking ASL since I know my hearing is predicted to continue getting worse, and very likely going to be gone almost completely, in the next 10-20 years (thanks to still chronic ear infections and the likelihood of needing at least 2 more surgeries for my ears). Most people who know me have no idea I can't hear well at all though. I have learned to speech read pretty well, and other times (when I just simply can't interpret what was said) I simply follow the cues of others around me to react in what appears to be the appropriate manner. When I finally tell them many don't believe me. I've been told I just need to pay more attention, stop letting myself get distracted, etc. Been told if I really couldn't hear then I'd have a hearing aid already. Not a lot of people understand that hearing aids don't work for all types of hearing loss, nor are they cheap. Because of that reaction I have purposely avoided many situations and gatherings and thus been labeled as anti-social and stuck up. It's very frustrating and this is something more people need to learn about.

    Since I am finally learning ASL, and therefore basically forcing my family as well, we are currently discussing signing our vows as well as saying them. I will have printed copies available of the ceremony, and any other important elements (which haven't yet been decided). I want my wedding to be accessible to everyone. I wish everyone felt the same.

    6 agree
  2. Thank you for this reminder. while I was worrying about my mom being happy at the wedding I almost forgot fact that she has trouble hearing in one ear. I wouldn't want her to miss anything. I will Also definitely want some print out material for those who have trouble hearing.the 30 to 40 percentage quote is probably accurate for my family considering my aunts and uncles are now in their 70's and 80's.

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  3. Thanks for suggesting this. I wouldn't have remembered to do this, but my grandfather, (if he can make it, g!dwilling he will still be healthy enough to attend) and my great uncle are very hard of hearing. Other folks attending may be hard of hearing and we don't know it. I will try to make sure to make printouts of as much of the spoken events as possible.

    1 agrees
  4. Thank you a million times for this. My grandma can't hear very well and I know she would love to hear everything. I love the idea of having a few printed out copies of the events. I am going to make sure I especially have a copy of the ceremony and our vows. I know it hurts her feeling sometimes when everyone laughs and she can't join in. This is a very considerate thought for anyone with this impairment.

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  5. This was great, thank you!

    I'd also like to point out that there are people who have a hard time hearing in crowds, especially when there are lots of people talking/background music/silverware clinking/etc. They may be fine during the ceremony, and even during the toasts (when everyone is presumably politely listening and is more-or-less quiet), but may be unable to participate in a conversation with someone across the table (especially those big round hotel tables). My husband is slightly hard of hearing in one ear and he's on the spectrum, so his ability to filter ambient noise is extremely limited. If I'm next to him, he's fine, but any kind of distance from the speaker becomes a challenge (talking to someone on the other side of a wide counter – say at the food court at the mall, for example).

    If you're talking to someone you may suspect is having trouble hearing you, please make sure you LOOK AT THEM when you're talking to them. (If we're at the mall, for example, and I look away and say something, 70% of the time he's not even going to realize I said anything.) Also enunciate your words (you don't have to pretend like you're in drama class, but it's amazing how many people habitually mumble). Repeat things cheerfully; I promise he's not ignoring you, he just can't make you out over the chicken dance.

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  6. This is some awesome advice. I didn't realize how high the statistics were on hearing-impaired adults, and then I started going through just the ones I KNOW about on our guest list… and it's totally true. I hope I can make our wedding inclusive for everyone, including Grandma and the others that just don't hear so well! What a fantastic topic!

    1 agrees
  7. Do you have loop technology in the US? It transmits audio directly to hearing aids on a certain setting, they're most common in audatoriums and churches, but it might still be worth asking if you know there will be hearing aid users. Many businesses have it in the UK but have forgotten how to use it. We live in a steel and mining town where most man past middle age have some degree of late onset hearing loss. Although we didn't need loop for our wedding it's proved invaluable at other family events

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    • Unfortunately Looped venues are pretty hard to find in the US. They're gaining popularity but even a lot of our Audiologists don't know too much about them, let alone their patients. There are a few bubbles where the Looping movement has taken hold but most of the US is still sadly lacking. But it's definitely something anyone with hearing aids should look into. For more information you can check out this site http://hearingloop.org//index.htm or just do a search online.

      Another thing to keep in mind, is hearing aids are microphones so they only work about 6-8 feet and they amplify whatever is the closest sound. So if you're wearing a hearing aid and sitting by a fan that's pretty much what you're going to hear for the ceremony. Put anyone you know that has issues hearing in the front row. It'll give them the best chance to hear the ceremony.

      5 agree
    • Dude! I've been hearing impaired my whole life, hearing aids since I was five, and I have NEVER heard of this! (No pun intended LOL) This needs to catch on in the US! Maybe one day I can see a movie in theaters and actually understand what is going on!

      1 agrees
  8. Thanks for addressing this, because it is so infrequently considered. Even when we planned our daughters wedding a few years back, we mostly relied on my placement near the things that were happening for me to be able to hear. Placement of guests with vision & hearing impairments is a crucial consideration, too. Many of your suggests apply to much more than just weddings. These to me more universally considered with all group meetings and gatherings. Thank you again.

    1 agrees
  9. Also, you could assign a lip reader interpreter. It is a person who certified to "lip read" without using voice and the deaf people who are skilled at lip reading but does not know sign language. It is a very difficult and complex and especially if they are doing it at a wedding. Please do provide papers for them to read or some kind of video to show how two people fall in love, first kiss, what hobbies they are into… you get the idea. I sure hope deaf people and the extended family will get a great experience as well as the hearing party.

    1 agrees
  10. I love this. My mom is hard of hearing, and I definitely don't want her to feel left out of the conversation on my wedding day! She's a mix of guests A & C. Her expression won't change, but it's "I'm happy and attentive and nodding!" expression, because she'd rather fake it 'till she makes it. And even though she was born with a hearing impairment, she's only just started learning sign language in the last couple of years.

    My cousin got married on Saturday, and her groom is a sign language interpreter and has deaf family members, so there was an interpreter present at the ceremony and during speeches. I love that whenever he speaks with my mom, he signs along with what he's saying so she can try to pick things up and practice :)

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  11. This is a great article. My boyfriend's sister is getting married in the fall and the family has asked if I want an interpreter for the ceremony to be able to follow along (I'm deaf, and by the time the ceremony happens I'll be unilaterally implanted). Personally, I know the cost of an interpreter is pretty great, and I politely declined the interpreter and told them to use their money towards their honeymoon instead… but it was awesome they asked.

    Another thing to add to the list above – a quiet and lit room for that 1:1 conversation, or a space to break that assigned seating! People surprise you with knowing 2 semesters of ASL or just the littlest bit of conversational sign language… it's cool to be able to get closer to strangers who turn out to be easy to talk to. Nothing more frustrating than discovering that a person 3 tables over behind the tall centerpieces knows how to talk to you and is really interesting when you're stuck next to mumbling mustached guests haha!

    0 agree

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