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Understanding and Welcoming Individuals who are Deaf

December 12, 2013

Normally we do not cover the topic of Deaf Ministry on The Inclusive Church Blog.  However, given the trending news story regarding the controversial sign language interpreter at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service, I thought this guest post was both timely and helpful to our readers. I am incredibly grateful to Stacy Hodge and Justin Lee for their careful research to produce the following article. ~ AFL

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Understanding and Welcoming Individuals who are Deaf

Several years ago I (Stacy) served as an interpreter at church for a young man who was Deaf.  Knowing that I was able to sign, another church staff person grabbed me one Sunday morning in a panic:

“We need you to come sign to a woman who has lost her hearing and needs help communicating with us.”

My staff friend rushed me to another area of the church where I found an older lady sitting in a chair.  As I began to both speak and sign to her, she looked confused, eventually interrupting (audibly),

“I don’t know sign language.”

This lady had lost her hearing later on in life and never learned sign language; she didn’t need an interpreter, she simply needed a pen and paper to communicate.  After providing this lady something to write with, we learned that our fellow worshipper was looking for friends from her ladies Sunday school class.  On that particular Sunday those friends had already left for lunch.  Our communication dilemma was solved.  But we all learned an important lesson that day…just because a person cannot hear does not mean they automatically sign in order to communicate.

Being a former Deaf Education teacher, I have encountered a number of funny situations and questions, reflecting the common misperceptions about individuals who are Deaf or who sign to communicate.  One question that I receive surprisingly often is, “Do you know Braille?”  I smile and remind those posing the question that Braille is for individuals who cannot see, not for those who cannot hear.

Below are some tips you may find helpful in understanding and welcoming fellow churchgoers who are Deaf or hard of hearing:

Culturally speaking, being “Deaf” and “hard of hearing” are not the same thing.  Individuals who prefer to be recognized as Deaf may have a mild to profound hearing loss, use American Sign Language to communicate, and identify with the Deaf culture. When referring to someone as being Deaf with a capital “D”, that signifies the person’s association with the Deaf culture.  To use the lower case “d” refers only to the condition of hearing loss and without association to the Deaf culture.  Of course these are generalizations and the choices and traits may not apply to every person who does or does not identify themselves as Deaf.

Individuals who consider themselves hard of hearing often identify less with the Deaf culture and more with the hearing world.   While some individuals may sign, generally, there is a greater reliance on technology such as hearing aids or cochlear implants to aid in communication. 

Most Deaf individuals do not have “special needs.”  In a sense, a person who benefits from the aid of an interpreter does have a “special” or additional need for accommodation.  However because the term “special needs” often implies intellectual disability, is it important not to use the term “special needs” when referring to an individual who has hearing loss.  Most individuals who are Deaf  or hard of hearing are on the same intellectual level as the general population.  It is for this reason it is often best to create accommodation for these individuals separate of a church’s special needs ministry.

It is also preferable to avoid referring to individuals who are Deaf or hard of hearing as “hearing impaired” or “disabled”.  Both of these terms have negative connotations, implying the person has something wrong or needs to be fixed.

Recognize that the Deaf community has their own culture.  Much like phrases from different regions or countries, some expressions and ways of relating do not perfectly translate.  Occasionally a person who is not Deaf may misinterpret an interaction with a person who is Deaf as insensitive or even rude.  In fact that is rarely the case, and more often than not the missed connection or hurt feelings is a function of cultural misunderstanding.  Similarly, an individual who is Deaf may miss a social cue inherent to the spoken language and common among hearing individuals.

Always talk directly to the individual.  A common mistake many people make is to talk to a nearby friend or an identified interpreter when attempting to communicate with someone who is Deaf.  However, this is not appreciated.  Look at and speak directly to the person who is Deaf.  This gives the person the opportunity to be acknowledged and be part of the conversation.

Seek the services of a qualified interpreter.  American Sign Language (ASL) has its own, complex language and needs to be studied just like any other foreign language.  A proficient and certified interpreter will be more likely to accurately translate complicated ideas.  This is especially important in the church setting where abstract concepts and involved analogies are often used to explain Scripture.  Reach out to the interpreting community and local agencies to find a qualified and respected interpreter.

While ASL is the most widely recognized form of communication for individuals who are Deaf, the following other languages are common and require their own qualified interpreters:

  • Communication Access Real-time Translation (CART – real-time-closed captioning)
  • Signed English
  • Total Communication or SimComm
  • Speech Reading
  • Cued Speech

Keep in mind that ASL is not universal.  A person from outside the U.S. may not be familiar with the language.  It is also important to note that occasionally the written English of a person who is Deaf can be confusing to someone unfamiliar with American Sign Language.  ASL has a sentence structure and grammar sometimes unlike our Standard English.  These differences are more evident in writing than in face-to-face dialogue.

Individuals who lose their hearing later in life may never learn sign language.  Much like the lady in the opening story, not everyone with hearing loss uses sign language.  Over the years these individuals have adapted and learned to communicate in some other way. Don’t be afraid to ask the person what works for them.  Pen and paper, pictures, and gestures are all good starting points for establishing initial communication.

Some individuals who are Deaf or hard of hearing have learned speech reading.  Speech reading is essentially what we think of as reading lips.  If a person can communicate via speech reading, it is important to speak normally, keeping your mouth area clear of distractions, all while being mindful of the surrounding environment.

To help the person relying on speech reading, refrain from the following:  

  • Using exaggerated speech or movements
  • Speaking with a raised voice
  • Talking while any food or gum is still in your mouth
  • Covering your mouth with your hands
  • Positioning your face away from the person
  • Conversing in a dark or distracting environment

~ Stacy Hodge with Justin Lee

Stacy Hodge picStacy Hodge is the Church Relations Manager for Joni and Friends Texas.  She graduated from Baylor University in 2005 with her Bachelor of Arts in Communication Sciences and Disorders, Deaf Education and a minor in Sign Language Interpreting.  Upon graduation, she taught for the middle school Deaf Education program in Round Rock ISD.  After a year of teaching, Stacy returned back to Dallas to get her masters in Christian Education.  For the past seven years she has been a substitute teacher in a local ISD subbing for Deaf Education Teachers teaching Deaf students ages 3-21.  Also, during her time serving at the church, she taught and interpreted for the Deaf.  Stacy still holds her certification as a Deaf Education Teacher for the state of Texas.  Connect with Stacy on Twitter: @Heart4sn

Screen Shot 2013-12-11 at 9.59.52 PMJustin Lee works full-time interpreting for ZVRS services and is the founder of ASLicherish interpreting agency.  He has served with the North American Mission Board and International Mission Board serving Deaf interest groups.  Justin is certified at the Advanced level by the state of Texas (BEI) and presents workshops to interpreters nationally based on the experience gained from his mission service along with the education he gained studying Cross Cultural Missions at East Texas Baptist University.  Justin and his wife are both experienced interpreters and can be contacted at aslicherish@gmail.com.

Other posts featuring Stacy Hodge:
Including Teens & Pre-Teens with Special Needs
iPads, iOS 6 and Special Needs Ministry

4 Comments
  1. The column width settings for this page seems to be off, as each line has words on the right side that are cut off. It usually just needs to be reformatted within the settings.

  2. Correction. I believe the problem is with the jpg. The jpg should be reformatted to a smaller resolution. The words usually will adjust back to normal after that.

    Just in case, you can see the entirety of the article by clicking the Share This button and choosing print. The print version is not affected by the column settings on the webpage.

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