Inviting Deaf and Hard of Hearing People to Church - Deaf Awareness Week
By Rev. Leo Yates, Jr.
Deaf Awareness Week is soon approaching, and United Methodist churches should extend their hand of welcome to Deaf, hard-of-hearing, late-deafened, and Deafblind persons in their community. This week is observed during the last week of September (in 2019, the 23-29th), beginning on Monday and ending on Sunday. Deaf Awareness Week originated in Rome, Italy in 1958 through the efforts of The World Federation of the Deaf. Deaf communities around the world began adopting this international observance as a way to honor the history and heritage of Deaf and hard of hearing people, affirm diversity, to educate society about deafness, and celebrate Deaf culture.
Historically, Deaf ministries have been an extension of their Deaf community, in part, due to their support of Deaf education and mission. For instance, during the mid-nineteenth century, The Episcopal Church ordained its first Deaf deacon in the U.S. The Methodist Church was the fourth denomination to have a Deaf pastor to serve a Deaf congregation in Chicago, which was close to the turn of the 20th century. Click here for a brief outline of Deaf Christian history and click here for a more comprehensive account.
Communication barriers and cultural differences often exclude Deaf and hard of hearing persons from the life of the church. For example, when this writer's Deaf parents moved from Maryland to Virginia, the fourth church that was contacted agreed to provide a sign language interpreter. Recently, a Deaf couple in the Southeastern Jurisdiction shared they are only able to worship twice a month because their church is unable to afford a sign language interpreter on a weekly basis. In most cases, there is a cost for sign language interpreters. While it's the church's responsibility to hire and pay for interpreters, most Deaf and hard-of-hearing people donate to their congregation, and thus support the cost indirectly (click here for a brief guide about interpreters). One Deaf ministry holds an annual fundraiser to support their interpreting ministry. Certainly, budgeting and prioritizing the Deaf ministry is vital to sustaining it. So is awareness; a cultural difference can be seen during a Christmas Eve service when lights are dimmed and candles used. This makes it challenging to see a sign language interpreter.
The Apostle Paul emphasized to the church in Corinth (and us) that the body of Christ needs all of its members (1 Cor 12:12-31). Like other denominations, The United Methodist Church recognizes the need for Deaf, hard-of-hearing, late-deafened, and Deafblind individuals to be better represented in the life of the church. General Conference continues to support funding for Deaf ministries. This funding is overseen by Global Ministries, which includes small grants to support new Deaf ministries.
Deaf Awareness Week is a strong reminder for churches to be accessible and inviting for Deaf and hard of hearing people. For example, offer captioning (display it on a TV screen or project it with PowerPoint), have all-encompassing bulletins (Scriptures, prayers, announcements, music), use multimedia (Deaf people can't hold hymnals while signing), ensure adequate lighting, and consistently use a sound system during worship: all of these are inexpensive ways to improve accessibility. Click here for more ideas. After all, 1 in 3 persons over 65 have some degree of hearing loss and improving communication access in worship and in the life of the church can support hard-of-hearing and late-deafened people to remain active, some of whom are the bigger givers.
So, how can your church observe Deaf Awareness Week?
- Emphasize accessibility
- Become familiar with our guidebook, Breaking the Sound Barrier. Complete the communication access audit that begins on page 12; then discuss any findings in the next church council meeting
- Have Deaf and hard of hearing people help lead worship (e.g. sign the Lord's Prayer, be greeters, ushers, sign a hymn, or read Scripture)
- Include bulletin inserts all month long
- Host a Deaf Awareness Sunday (be sure to promote it)
- Become familiar with the book, , (3rd ed). Become bold and implement a Deaf ministry committee (read on p. 330 for ideas) and explore the possibilities.
As a part of its Disability Ministries, Emmanuel UMC in Laurel, MD, is observing Deaf awareness by offering a month-long sign language class, has a sign language interpreter on most Sundays, uses multimedia, and will include Deaf awareness in its announcements. For activities and ideas, check out the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Ministries Committee's Deaf Awareness Week web page. For general information about Deaf Awareness Week, click here. For a series of brief guides and congregational resources, click here.
Rev. Leo Yates, Jr. is the consultant for the Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Ministries Committee. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org if your church wishes to explore beginning a Deaf ministry and/or wish to subscribe to the committee’s monthly Deaf ministry e-news. Churches will receive a free book, Deaf Ministry: An Introduction to Ministry Models during September.