Today we estimate that globally there are more than 300 million people with disabling hearing loss. With the lack of interpretation in churches around the world, it should come as no surprise that it is estimated that only 2 percent of the deaf are Christian. This can change when those who hear work together with those who cannot.
While there is nothing inherently wrong with the word disability, it does give an emphasis to what a person cannot do. Many deaf feel disrespected by the hearing people, though most hearing persons have no intention of conveying that impression. Every effort needs to be made to affirm the talents and spiritual gifts of the deaf person. There is much more to deafness, however, than being unable to hear. The deaf, for example, see themselves as being part of a linguistic culturalminority people group more than as a collection of individuals with a common disability. The idea of a “culture” suggests a full range of learned behavior patterns. In turn, this results in the consciousness of a special identity.
An element of separation and exclusion can result in the minds of both the hearing and the deaf when these unique cultural characteristics are added to the use of a fully recognized but foreign language. The deaf communicate their “sign language” not only without words but with a combination of hand, facial, and body expressions. This recognition of the deaf as a cultural community or people group is important when efforts are put forth to develop working relationships between the deaf and hearing. A few communication practices by the hearing when working with the deaf can be helpful. Consider the following:
1. Learn the deaf person’s name or sign.
2. To get a deaf person’s attention, tap his or her shoulder lightly.
3. Face the person with whom you are speaking.
4. If speaking through an interpreter, address the deaf person, not the interpreter.
5. Maintain eye contact.
6. Include the deaf in general conversations.
7. Appoint a deaf person to serve as an officer in your church.
8. Invite the deaf to have a part in planning church events. When attending church events, be sure to recognize and include them in the various activities.
9. Deaf are visual. During the worship service it is important that they be seated near the front and that the interpreter to be close to the platform.
10. If an interpreter is not present during the worship service, provide a device, such as an iPad, where they can watch a “deaf church” sermon preached elsewhere while still being part of the worshiping church.*
11. When possible, the deaf prefer to have their own church during study time and worship. However, on special occasions they like to be involved with the hearing congregation.
12. As the deaf group grows, they will need their own pastor or elder/ leader.
13. As with any cultural group, there are some practices to avoid. Here are a few:
14. Do not refer to the deaf as “dumb,” “deaf-mute,” or “handicapped.”
15. Do not stomp your feet or make huge waving or rude gestures to get the deaf person’s attention.
16. Do not allow your attention to be diverted by another hearing person.
17. Do not treat the deaf adult like a child.
18. Do not persist in helping the deaf when they do not need or want help.
19. Do not assume deaf people can read lips. Only 30 percent of words in English can be read on the lips. And many letters look the same when pronounced—like b and p.
The greatest liability a hearing person has when working with the deaf is when decisions impacting the deaf are made without first consulting them. The ministry for the deaf is really most effective when it becomes a ministry with the deaf. There is no better way of doing this than first spending time with them in their own setting. Jesus, our Example, did this.
With such an Example, we ask, “Must the deaf be the last to ‘hear?’ ”
* One option is the live stream worship service by the Southern Deaf Fellowship pastored by Jeffrey Jordan. The link to the live streaming is www .deafchurchonline.org/index.php/live-sermon. Deaf congregants can also go to our archives section to see previous sermons.
Esther M. Doss, Can You Hear Us?: A Quick Guide to Deaf Ministry (Greenbelt, MD: Three Angels Deaf Ministries, 2014). Download it at www.adventistdeaf.org/ uploaded_assets/7125. Larry R. Evans, “Do We Hear Them?”(Adventist World, February 2012). For a list of resources for your deaf congregants, please visit www.adventistdeaf.org/ deaf-resources.