By Rev. Leo Yates, Jr.
September is Deaf Awareness Month. It's a time to learn about Deaf culture, sign language (and even learn some sign phrases), and Deaf history. It's also a good time to become more sensitive to Deaf culture, improve accessibility in our churches, and do a better job of empowering Deaf and hard of hearing people.
Deaf awareness also includes an understanding of what "hearing privilege" is. A simple explanation of having a privilege is to recognize having an advantage or having power that others, or a group, does not have. Here are some examples of hearing privilege.
- Are able to apply to any university they choose without discrimination, and do not have to worry whether an interpreter will be available to interpret when they attend said university.
- Can have direct communication with their peers and teachers in a classroom without the use of an interpreter.
- Do not have to worry about funding for interpreters.
- Do not have to worry about finding an interpreter at a medical office, in dealing with police, or other public agencies.
- Get to have full communication with parents and family in their first language.
- Get to share the same cultural values as their family.
- Don’t have to defend and fight to have their language recognized and respected.
- Can apply at any job they choose without fear of discrimination.
- Can go to a museum or special events without needing an interpreter.
Certainly, the list is just a snippet (see more examples here) and can be more specific to communities or circumstances. The point of this list is to heighten our awareness, to be more sensitive, and to be intentional in empowering Deaf and hard of hearing people in our faith communities.
Most of us may think that "providing" an interpreter or having a hearing loop system is what we need to do to be inviting of Deaf and hard of hearing people. Yet, this is exactly the point. Including or providing (being inclusive) is not the same as being empowering. Empowering is sharing the power or giving up power in order for a person (someone without it) to have power. When we do not empower others, then it is often about us not wanting to give up power and control. It might be more about keeping status or due to insecurity when we do not empower others. Empowering others is Christ-like and it is what Jesus showed us in his ministry throughout Galilee. For example, Jesus empowered the seventy-two disciples to share in the work and ministry. When we empower others, we are intentionally sharing grace.
One church in the state of Maryland does a great job in empowering Deaf parishioners. Besides having a sign language interpreter, the church elected the Deaf person a lay leader. A church in Washington state voted for the Deaf person to be the lay member to annual conference. Talk about sharing power! The lay member to annual conference has a seat on a few church committees.
More importantly, this type of empowerment models to the church and to the community that ALL people are valued and are welcomed here. A church in Florida had a supportive pastor who empowered a Deaf couple to be representatives at their annual conference. At their home church, they are often Scripture readers and lead in other ways. There are other churches doing these and more; however, it’s only a start as we need to continually strive for more diversity that better represents the body of Christ.
Raising awareness couldn't be easier during Deaf Awareness Month. Try these ideas:
- Put out brochures about hearing loss on a resource table (here's a good source).
- Plan a sign language class (look here for ideas).
- Show a documentary like "Through Deaf Eyes" one Sunday after worship.
- To learn about some of the history and those who made a historical significant impact in Deaf culture, sign language, and in the Deaf community, check out these resources from the Arizona Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing.
For more Deaf awareness ideas, for resources, and considerations for establishing a Deaf ministry, go to the United Methodist Committee on Deaf and Hard of Hearing Ministries webpage for congregational resources.
About the writer: Rev. Leo Yates, Jr. is a provisional deacon serving in the Baltimore Washington Conference. He serves on the United Methodist Committee on Deaf and Hard of Hearing Ministries.