A Quick Glimpse into Deaf Culture

Introduction to the Deaf Community

Deaf people live and interact as a distinct people group. Approximately 6 million strong in North America, they have their own customs, norms, habits, thought patterns, language, and common experiences that identify them as a unique culture group. Deaf people tend to believe that deafness is not a disability or a handicap, but rather the quality that unites Deaf people into a cohesive, vibrant community. Thus,

Deaf people prefer to be called "Deaf" rather than "Hearing Impaired".
Deaf people live in a world that is largely made for those people who can hear and speak. Their many responses to these situations may be a result of on-the-spot ingenuity, and this instills pride in them. Many Deaf people are proud to be Deaf and would want it no other way.

Language Notes

  • Most Deaf People's preferred language is American Sign Language (ASL).
  • ASL is not a form of English — it has its own distinct grammatical structure.
  • Most Deaf people regard ASL as their natural language, which reflects their cultural values and keeps their traditions and heritage alive.
  • Not being able to hear the spoken language makes learning to speak and write English fluently difficult. It remains, at best, a second language for them, while Sign Language is their heart language.
  • ASL is more like French Sign Language than like British Sign Language.

How do Deaf people…

  • Wake up in the morning? There are special alarm clocks attached to either a flashing light or a bed vibrator that will activate when the alarm goes off.
  • Understand T.V.? Many television shows/movies are captioned. There is a decoder inside the television, which can be turned on via remote control. Once turned on, words appear on the screen like subtitles.
  • Talk on the phone? A TTY enables a Deaf person to use the phone. A TTY must be at both ends for a conversation. But if the other end does not have a TTY, a Relay Service may be used to interpret the conversation. Also, Video Phones have allowed Deaf people to see their caller face-to-face. If a person on one end does not have a Video Phone or doesn't know sign language, they may utilize a VRS interpreter.

Religion and the Church

Only 2-4% of Deaf people in North America attend church. We can not afford to maintain the status quo. It's been estimated that fewer than 6 % of American churches have any outreach to the Deaf at all. Most of those who do try something generally restrict their "ministry" to a volunteer signer who's had perhaps a few months of sign language classes, attempting to interpret worship services. The ministry was started and carried on by people who love the Lord. Yet for all their efforts, few Deaf people attend, and often seem disconnected from the fellowship. In most cases, the few Deaf people who do come ultimately just drift away.

Communication is a barrier in the church. Deaf people often feel all alone in a room full of people. They feel like they're sitting in a fish bowl watching others visit, sing, laugh, and study together. Some churches are thoughtful enough to provide an interpreter, but even still, Deaf members or visitors are simply spectators, not participants. Very few are blessed with a Deaf group in which they can study, pray, and sing together, where each person is understood and play a vital part in worship service.

A relationship with Jesus is an experience. How can a Deaf person have a spiritual experience if they feel like they are all alone in a congregation full of people or in a fish bowl wondering what's going on around them? An experience is something you can claim, something you have. You can't claim someone else's experience.

If we are ever going to get serious about Deaf ministry, we're going to start thinking like Deaf people. We're going to have to listen to what they have to say and learn how they perceive the world and themselves. We're going to have to put aside our own prejudices and our own likes and dislikes. We have to move into a world that, for most of us, is unfamiliar and fuzzy to our eyes. If we don't do this, the Deaf community will continue to be the largest unreached people group in North America.

Perhaps you love your church and you want to make it accessible to Deaf people so they can love it too. But realistically, no matter what you do, most Deaf people will never love your hearing church. Nearly everything in your church is very hearing oriented, from the music, an important part of almost every hearing worship service, to the preaching which is 30 to 50 minutes of monologue, to the casual conversation in the lobby, and so forth.

Honestly, Deaf people are not driving past your church every day thinking, "I sure wish they would interpret their services. Then I would attend." No, in fact, most Deaf people are not even looking for a church. Many have had bad experiences with church in the past and they think of them as "prisons" where everyone has be quiet and Deaf people don't know what's going on half the time. So if you put a sign out on the church lawn announcing you are now sign interpreting your services, don't expect a flood of Deaf folks to show up. Deaf people will never be able to experience a hearing church the same way you do.

Deaf Church

The Deaf church can feel like a breath of fresh air to a Deaf person who has only known church as a place where they were on the outside looking in through the window of an interpreter. They are no longer spectators; they are now part of the action. The set up of the room is designed to enhance the worship and fellowship experience. Worshipers all sign their praise to God in congregational songs. The message and all information shared are in sign language, their native tongue. Also, Deaf people best learn interactively. In a Deaf church, they are free to ask questions, seek clarification, and discuss meaning together. In the hearing church setting, often deaf people can only be objects of someone else's ministry. In a Deaf church, each person is free to use their spiritual gifts, talents and passion to serve in the work of the ministry. What a better way to learn and share.

Notes on Interpreting

  • If you are using an interpreter, speak to the Deaf person directly and pretend the interpreter is not there.
  • Speak in a normal regular tone, you do not have to talk slow or take long pauses, keep a normal flow.
  • The interpreter(s) is there to translate inofmraiton from English to ASL or ASL to English. He/she is only there to interpret, not to become a Deaf person's guardian.
  • You may notice that Deaf individuals may not pay attention and stare at the interpreter at all times. That does not mean that they are not interested in what you have to say. They are just giving their eyes a break. (Keep in mind that having to pay attention to one spot for a period of time is very tiring for the eyes.)
  • If your church has an interpreter, be sure that your church has a back up interpreter in case of illness or vacation, otherwise, no services would be provided for Deaf people that week.

Note: having interpreted services, although important, does not mean that your church has a Deaf ministry. A Deaf ministry seeks out Deaf individuals to develop relationships and being willing to invest time in them.

Things to Remember...

  • Take an interest in their lives. Find out who they really are and what struggles and triumphs they are experiencing. Get to know them as great friends.
  • Don't be shy, communicate! Deaf people don't bite! They aren't lepers either, though sometimes they feel as if they are. Trying to communicate with a Deaf individual can be terrifying, just keep in mind that this is how Deaf people feel on a day-to-day basis. Relax and just take it slow. If you don't know ASL, try writing. Also, occassional gestures are appropriate.
  • Make sure that the church has materials to meet a Deaf person's needs. There are some materials to help build faith and help them become strong believers, such as the Easy Reading Edition of the Sabbath School lesson and sermons or studies in ASL on DVDs.
  • Get them involved! Don't let your Deaf member(s) be mere spectators! Find out what their spiritual gifts are and put them to work! By developing true friendships and actively involving Deaf people in ministry, they'll feel less like spectators.
  • Socialize! Invite them to your home for a meal. Make sure they're invited to church socials and make certain they are participating rather than sitting on the sidelines like a wall flower finding comfort in the refreshments.
  • Don't isolate Deaf people. If a Deaf person asks what was just said, don't fall for the tempation to say, "It's not important." Or "I'll tell you later."
  • Assume nothing! Never assume that the interpreter is taking care of all the needs of Deaf members or visitors. Also, find out how to meet their needs on Sabbath and how they would like to be involved in the church. Each person is different, just as you and your friends are different.
  • Do not make decisions for Deaf members. Do not try to protect or control them.
  • Be a student! Ask Deaf people about their culture and listen to them. What better way to learn than just being with Deaf people! Drink in their world and learn from them.
  • Never forget that you, as a hearing person, are a stranger or a foreigner in the Deaf culture. It is an all too common complaint that hearing workers engaged in Deaf ministry don't have a real heart for Deaf. They think "hearing" and act superior. Always guard against this.

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