Image courtesy Caritas Deaf Service
Michelle Roca, Director of Caritas Deaf Service, writes:
“There are no Deaf people in my Diocese” – a response that I got from a Diocesan deacon when I asked him about provision for Deaf people in his area. I was on a pilgrimage to Lourdes some years ago and that response has stuck with me. Of course, his response was utter rubbish, there are definitely Deaf people in his Diocese (which for the purpose of this article should probably remain nameless!) There are Deaf people in every Diocese, there are Deaf people in all walks of life and if we do not see Deaf people in our parishes and Dioceses, then it is us that needs to change and make sure that our places of worship are welcoming and accessible to Deaf people.
Last week, a huge milestone was reached, British Sign Language (BSL) was given legal recognition as an official language in the UK. This is 19 years after BSL was first accepted to be a real language. Change can be slow to happen, but more people are beginning to see Deaf BSL users and interpreters as part of everyday life. The main response from the Deaf people in Westminster Diocese, who took part in the recent Synod discussions, was the need for more interpreters so that Mass and the life of the church is accessible to them. Deaf Catholics want to practice their faith, contribute to their parish and be fully part of Catholic Church.
Deaf people have a huge amount to offer the wider Catholic Community and we all have a great deal we can learn from the Deaf people. Whether it is about our faith or about other skills, like learning to adapt quickly, problem solving and educating others; issues that Deaf people deal with every day – we can learn a huge amount, if we are open and welcoming to Deaf people.
There are many skilled Deaf, deafened and hard of hearing people throughout every Diocese. Maybe amongst those people is someone who can help you in your parish? Imagine you are looking for someone to help with the parish online newsletter. When you announce at Mass you are looking for someone to help, you don’t have an interpreter present, the request is not included in the written newsletter and the hearing loop is not switched on. In those circumstances, approximately 1 in 6 people within your congregation will not know you have made that request. The same could be true if you are looking for someone to drive the minibus (and yes before anyone queries this, Deaf people can drive!). There are many roles in the parish that Deaf or hard of hearing people could volunteer for, if you make your request accessible.
So what can you do in your parish?
· Make sure that your hearing loop is working and that everyone who speaks uses the microphone. Having a loud voice is not substitute for an effective hearing loop. When using the microphone, keep your head still; if you move your head from side to side, when speaking using a fixed microphone, those relying on the hearing loop will only hear part of what you say.
· Provide a printed copy of all the announcements and the homily too. If your parish priest does not write his homily beforehand, maybe someone in your congregation knows shorthand and could provide any Deaf or hard of hearing people with a transcript?
· Make sure there is good lighting so that anyone who is lipreading can clearly see people’s faces. Lights should not be behind people’s heads as this creates a shadow; make sure the light is on the face of the person speaking or reading.
· Have a BSL interpreter at Mass; BSL is a beautiful language to pray and worship in. An interpreter at Mass means Deaf people can be part of the Mass. Have a Deaf person sign a reading or the bidding prayers (interpreters change BSL into English as well as English into BSL!) Many hearing people find having signing at Mass enhances their experience. Children at Mass love to learn their prayers in sign language. Deaf people in your parish will be happy to share their language with you all.
As many have experienced from the recent Synodal process, listening to others has a positive and humbling effect, and strengthens people’s faith. This Deaf Awareness week therefore, be open to listening to the Deaf and hard of hearing people in your parish or Diocese and invite them to help you shape your plans for the future.
Caritas Westminster Deaf Service