Knowing Deaf People in Church

Deaf people (Deaf with a capital D like American with a capital A – to mean belonging to the community) are members of the Deaf Community in the United States of America. The community is centered on Deaf organizations which exist throughout this country. They are different from hard-of hearing people or late-deafened people because many Deaf people use their own sign language. Sign language usually is their first language while spoken English is their second language.

Hearing Loss
Deaf people have different degrees of hearing loss. Deaf people who don’t turn around when called, are not ignoring you. Some Deaf people can hear and people who are hard-of hearing will be able to use a hearing aid. Individuals vary – so some people will be able to conduct a conversation through hearing if the surroundings are quiet but not in noisy situations or where there are groups of people. Generally, you should not rely on their use of a hearing aid – make your communication as visual as possible.

All Deaf people do not lip-read spoken English accurately 100% of time – actually nobody can lip-read English – because around half of it is invisible on the lips – people who seem to lip-read are mostly using guesswork based on their existing knowledge of English and on the context. When you are with Deaf people it is proper and polite to face them and speak directly at slow speed, while they are looking at you. Do not cover your mouth/face with your hands and do not sit with the light behind you (i.e., with the window at your back) as that casts a shadow on your face. Try to avoid visual distractions like waving a pen or random gestures or looking away. If asked to repeat, do so patiently as it does not indicate lack of attention; it is just that the Deaf person just wants to be sure of what you are saying.

Deaf people use sign language - more accurately, American Sign Language (ASL), which has a different structure to English – it is not English on the hands. Finger-spelling is used to represent specific English words when needed. In fact in ASL, the face, the body and the hands are all equally important; Deaf people watch the face when signing, not the hands. ASL is different to other sign languages (i.e., Brazil Sign Language and British Sign Language) and ASL has been known to exist for over 200 years in the United States of America.

Alternative Forms of Communication
Like other users of a minority language Deaf people do not expect everyone to be able to sign fluently. Usually, Deaf people will try to communicate in English. They may say “I’m Deaf” or gesture and they may even speak. However, be prepared to write down – it is often the simplest and most effective means of communication. Make sure you have a notepad and pen handy as this may help more people than just Deaf people. Some Deaf people can use both languages - English (usually written) and ASL – but they may use the ASL better in some contexts rather than others – not because Deaf people are unintelligent, but because many of them have had limited access to FULL English education.

Deaf Speaking
Some Deaf people’s speech sounds odd to hearing people; however, you should not believe it is an indicator of stupidity. If you had to try to speak a foreign language which you have never heard and when you cannot hear your own voice properly, your speech would sound funny. If you do not understand, be patient and ask for a repetition. If it is still not clear to you, ask the person to write it down.

Body Language
Since Deaf people live everyday in a visual world, they are expert at detecting human emotion by understanding people’s expressions and body language. They will be able very quickly to tell if someone is tired, or upset, or anxious or angry. If you are impatient or annoyed by the fact that the Deaf person does not understand everything right away, they will know it immediately. Be aware of your facial expression and your body language.

As with body language, your manner of dealing with people will be visible to the Deaf person. Often when Deaf people speak, hearing people are taken aback as the voice quality is different from what they might expect and it may be hard to understand. However, don’t judge the person by the sound of their voice. If you react strangely or if your manner suggests that you think the person is stupid in some way, this will be picked up by Deaf people, and they could very well become too offended to attend church again.

The Two Faces of Facial Expression
Sign language communication uses facial expression in two ways: the first is to illustrate emotion and manner (how things happen or how a person reacts) and the second is more fundamental to the structure of sign language as it carries much of the grammatical information in sign language. This means that sign language users at times display emotion as it would be seen in spoken language conversation but at other times, the facial expression has very different shape and articulation. In some situations, people have interpreted such facial expression in a negative way to be associated with lack of intellectual capacity or as poor expression.

Clearly this is a major issue for the conversation. Although a hearing person may use an interpreter to transfer the message meaning, the hearing person will still use basic person perception form an opinion of the Deaf person. Where the facial expression used does not match what is known to the hearing person, then there is a danger of over-estimating or under-estimating the competence of the Deaf person. There is no easy answer to this – seek advice or learn more about sign language.

With Deaf people, you get attention by gently waving your hand in their line of sight, tapping them on the forearm/upper arm/shoulder or moving into their field of vision. You can also gain attention by tapping on the desk or table and by flicking the lights on and off quickly. Try not to approach from behind, never touch on the back or head and DO NOT SHOUT! Also, it is rude for you to 'snap' your fingers at the deaf person in order to get his/her attention.

One of the most annoying things for a Deaf person at church is when a hearing person responds immediately to sounds (like the cell phone or someone calling) while the Deaf person is in conversation with that hearing person. Because a Deaf person may not be able to hear this sound, he/she will feel suddenly cut off if the hearing person looks away or grabs the phone. If you have to, indicate visually that the phone is ringing or someone is calling. In signing it is usual to establish the topic first, then to explain about it. It is important for you to make sure the person knows what you are going to talk about before you start explaining. Be visual (use gestures to point to the object or write down the heading) if you wish to change topic or to do something else.

If Deaf people are dealing with people who do not sign, they will often have to rely on lip-reading (sometimes it is difficult). Do not make this harder by having poor lighting or shadows on the face. Make sure the light is on your face not behind your head. Always make sure that the interpreter’s face is illuminated during church services.

Clear Line of Sight
It is best to remove objects that obstruct the view between you and the Deaf person (flowers, easels, poles, banners, tall persons, etc). Ideally a Deaf person should have a room which allows them to see the rest of the room and other people. It is a bad idea to place the Deaf facing the wall or in remote corner of sanctuary. It should be well lit but not facing the sun. People who come to the podium or table should have the light on their faces not behind their heads. The Deaf prefer to sit in circles instead of rows.

Deaf and hearing people share the same visual world. You can use the same visual elements in the surroundings. In meeting with a Deaf person, use these visual clues. If you want to say the weather is nice, look up at the sky; if you want to complement the person on his tie or her dress, point to your tie or dress and speak with eye contact. Be aware that all the information for the Deaf person comes from the visual world. It is important that you use all visual means – concrete objects, demonstrations, video, flip-charts, PowerPoint presentations, whiteboards or interpreters in order to discuss and to illustrate. For much of the time this will work well with hearing people and so it will be generally good practice – however, beware of the trap of beginning to talk (or sign) while looking away or while the Deaf person has their eye gaze on the visual illustration.

Same as Everyone
Deaf people vary like everyone else – in temperament, intelligence, special skills. Like everyone else, they expect to be respected for what they can do at church. They want to do something for Jesus like everyone else. While sign language is complex and takes time to learn, Deaf people will respond positively to anyone who tries to be visual and who makes the attempt to communicate directly. You can learn to fingerspell words by using the fingerspelling chart.