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No Barriers for Deaf People in Churches

Theological/Biblical Stance

Christians have believed and taught from the very beginning that God is the Creator of all people, that Jesus came to save all people, and that the Holy Spirit gives gifts to all people. And yet we know that over time, the Church has grown and continues to grow in its understanding of this inclusive doctrine.


The Deaf Community takes to heart the mandate in Matthew:

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and making them to obey everything I have commanded you…” (28:19-20)

Deaf Christians are painfully aware that over 27 million Deaf or hard of hearing persons (“The Deaf Nation”) find church doors partially or completely closed to them.

“God so loved the world that He gave His only Son so that everyone who believes in Him may not perish, but may have eternal life.” (John 3:16)

Yet, how shall the Deaf and hard of hearing come to believe, and how shall they have eternal life, unless and until the large community of faith embrace them, as Jesus did, and remove the barriers to communication?


The Pauline epistles refer to Jesus who saves us while we are still sinners. Jesus’ example was of one who did not require perfection, either physically or spiritually. Despite the goodness of creation, and the fact that we are all in the process of becoming, the Church in its proclamation of the Gospel has been slow to recognize the unique language and culture of persons who are Deaf or hard of hearing. Deaf persons have long been taught to see themselves as flawed persons, as less than fully human. They know themselves and others who are like them as the forgotten, as the rejected ones. They have been shunned by the larger human community, and unfortunately the Church, by and large, does not provide strong witness to another truth, that the Deaf are fully part of a holy creation, God’s children, saved by His Son, and sanctified and filled with His Holy Spirit.


In 1 Corinthians 12:4, we have a glimpse of the inherent value of uniqueness and the potential blessing of the diversity:

“Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit, and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord.”

More to the point, in Chapter 14:9, it has all too long been the experience of the Deaf persons that “…in a tongue you utter speech that is not intelligible, how will anyone know what is being said. For you will be speaking in the air.”


Deaf persons long for the fulfillment of Isaiah 29:18:

“On that day the Deaf shall hear the words of a scroll, and out of the gloom and darkness the eyes of the blind shall see.”

This fulfillment began with the Pentecost proclamation:

“…in our own languages, we hear them speaking about God’s deeds and power.” (Acts 2:11)

Those who have been fortunate enough to have received the word of God, and the grace of baptism, long for the larger church to reach out to their Deaf brothers and sisters who have not heard the good news. They cry out, in the name of the very God that the Church continues to preach and incarnate, “I have seen the suffering of my people…and heard their cries…and will deliver them.” (Exodus 3:7-8)


God Himself reminded Moses and reminds us: “Who makes them mute or deaf, seeing or blind? Is it not I, the Lord?” (Exodus 4:11)


Truly, as the church grows in understanding of the human and divine call to inclusivity, the Deaf Community in our midst has stood as a silent minority on the margins of our awareness, our allocation of resources, our evangelical outreach and mission priority.


Surely, the time has come for the Church to cry out in the ancient words of Isaiah (43:8-19)

“Bring forth the people who are blind, yet have eyes, who are deaf, yet have ears!…I work and who can hinder it?…I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness, and the rivers in the desert.”

For the Deaf Community, whose eyes are their ears, and whose hands are their voices, the prophetic voice of the Bible is a message of hope. Let us take the message to heart!


Terminology: Deaf and Hard of Hearing People

The term “deaf” has been used in many different ways. Sometimes it is used to refer to the degree of hearing loss (i.e. deaf versus hard of hearing). This is a distinction that has been of importance to many hearing people.


For many deaf people, however, the degree of hearing loss is not a negative term. What is important is attitude and identify, shared values and experiences that have led many audiologically deaf and hard of hearing people to bond with a common community (called the deaf community) and participate in a common culture (called Deaf culture). The capitalized word “Deaf” then is used to refer to persons with a hearing loss (of any kind) who identify with that community and are enculturated into that culture. The language of this culture is American Sign Language (abbreviated ASL), an indigenous sign language that is historically and structurally distinct from English. Persons who are culturally Deaf typically were born deaf or hard of hearing, or experienced a loss of hearing at an early age. Members of this culture include those born to Deaf parents; however, most have hearing parents. For most Deaf people, English is acquired as a second language.


There is a second group of audiologically deaf or hard of hearing people who also use a form of signing. However, this form of signing is structurally based on English and follows English word order (referred to here as “English-like signing”). Members of this group tend to share values with both Deaf and hearing worlds and to have contacts in both communities, although primary contacts tent to be with other deaf or hard of hearing persons. Some call themselves “deaf” while others call themselves “hard of hearing”. Members of this group are usually those deafened at a later age (not from birth), who first language is English, and/or who have a lesser hearing loss. There are also people who call themselves “Hard of Hearing” who have hearing losses ranging from mild to profound and who continue to identify with the values sand cultures of hearing persons. Typically, theses persons developed a hearing loss later in life or had a more mild hearing loss in the early years of life. Such Hard of Hearing persons continue to use spoken language, aided by hearing aids, speech reading, and other assistive technology. Very few of these Hard of Hearing persons use sign language.


Some people also use the term “hearing impaired”. However, few Deaf, deaf, or Hard of Hearing persons like this term. For example, many Deaf people protest that the term names them as a “deficit” group. They, quite to the contrary, see themselves as a linguistic-cultural group, who are simply different rather than a people who have something “wrong” with them. For them, the word “Deaf” is a very positive term.


Barriers in Church Settings

ALL persons who have a hearing loss typically face major frustrations and barriers in church settings. In North America, that means that over 27 million people find church doors partially or completely closed to them. Here are some typical stories that are told by countless persons:

“I grew up sitting in church next to my parents, not understanding a word. I was bored and angry that I had to sit still with nothing to do. My mother let me doodle on the church bulletin but that didn’t hold my interest for very long. I hated Sundays. Now as an adult, I’m glad I don’t have to go there anymore.”


“I went to a church a few years ago that advertised they were providing “sign language interpretation” for their main service. Great! I eagerly showed up and sat down in front. But when the interpreter started signing, I could hardly understand a thing! It was painful to watch her the whole service. Afterward, I went up to her to ask how she learned sign language. At first, she couldn’t understand me, but then when she finally did, she said she was enrolled in her SECOND COURSE!! She also confessed she didn’t understand the theological language of the pastor very well. Needless to say, I didn’t go back again.”


“I was very active in the church, taught Sunday School for many years and served on the boards of various women’s groups. But then I started to loose my hearing and stopped understanding what was going on. I became very depressed and isolated. I don’t go to church any more.”


“For several years, I went to a church that provided an interpreter who was fairly skilled. I learned a lot but felt very uncomfortable during all those long, boring songs which hearing people love so much. The interpreter did her best to sign them clearly – but all that archaic language with ideas fitted together because they rhyme just didn’t do anything for me! Also, the worship services were so “verbal”, so many words without visual images and or any drama. As I became more empowered in my identity as a Deaf person, I no longer felt willing to just tag along and sit passively through a worship service that didn’t really speak to my heart. I left. But I wish we could have a Deaf worship service with leaders who use my language and share the message visually.”


What can be done about these and other common barriers?



Observations of Hearing Church Workers

It has become clear to many hearing persons who have worked in Deaf ministry for a number of years that their efforts have frequently not been successful. In fact, despite years of ministry efforts, perhaps less than 10% of the deaf community are churched. And some deaf persons have had unusually negative experience in churches.


Many hearing church workers now realize that this lack of success has, in part, been due to a number of problems. Hearing members of the NCC Deaf Ministries Committee have reflected on these problems, saying (also printed in the Time to Listen brochure):


“We have lacked the linguistic ability and cultural sensitivity to listen to the Deaf community. We have not recognized the uniqueness of Deaf culture. We have made decisions for Deaf and hard of hearing persons. We have exerted control over Deaf ministry and have imposed a “hearing” perspective on it. We have perpetuated a model of Deaf ministry which has had limited success in effectively proclaiming the Gospel.


“Many of us now commit ourselves to listen to the deaf community and to hard of hearing persons. While we listen, we accept that we will not speak for Deaf or hard of hearing persons. We will experience a change in status and a re-defining of our role. We will work to stretch current church structures so that Deaf and hard of hearing persons may assume their rightful roles as leaders, envisioners, etc.”


Now is the time for hearing church workers to use their gifts and experience to facilitate the empowerment of deaf leaders who can then work effectively in their communities to share the good news of God’s love.


Ecumenical Imperative

Because the numbers of Deaf, deaf or hard of hearing persons in many local communities may be few in number, this ministry begs for inter-denominational, inter congregational collaboration.


For Deaf people who use American Sign Language as their primary language and who identify with Deaf cultural values, it is recommended that there be:

1. Separate Deaf worship services with pastors and teachers (preferably Deaf) who use American Sign Language.

2. Access to Deaf leadership training programs to encourage the development of Deaf laity and clergy who can assume positions of responsibility in the church.

3. Access to the Bible translated into ASL on videotape.

4. Freedom to develop indigenous forms of worship that reflect Deaf culture, such as prayer with eyes open, storytelling, drama, and the use of drums.

5. Freedom and support to develop theological understandings that reflect the experience and insights of Deaf people.

6. Worship and learning environments that include good lighting, visually accessible seating and regular use of visual aids.

7. Programming and Sunday School materials developed specifically for Deaf youth.

8. Support services and resources for hearing parents with Deaf children.

9. Opportunities to receive counseling with counselors skilled in ASL and knowledgeable about Deaf culture.

10. Churches that will work cooperatively to bring Deaf people together so there is a large enough group for meaningful sharing and programming.


For deaf and hard of hearing people who use English- like signing and who identify with a mix of Deaf and hearing cultural values, it is recommended that there be:

1. Interpreted services with skilled interpreters who sign in English word order with English mouth movements and full, clear fingerspelling. (However, some persons in this group also want the freedom to choose to attend separate Deaf services – pastor can be deaf or hearing.)

2. Shorter sermons and opportunities to respond and discuss the sermons afterwards.

3. A universal song book so there will be one agreed-upon way to sign each song rather than many, changing versions.

4. Freedom to choose to sign songs or to simply watch another sign them.

5. Worship and learning environments that are obstruction-free and include focused lighting, visual aids near the speaker, and tiered or elevated pews.

6. Front row seating to view interpreters and speakers easily.

7. Simultaneous, overhead captioning of what is being said.

8. Empowerment techniques and leadership programs geared to deaf people.

9. Counseling services for deaf people.

10. Education for hearing people about deafness and deaf people.


For Hard of Hearing people who use spoken and written English and who identify with hearing cultural values, it is recommended that there be:

1. Support for full inclusion in the regular life of the church

2. Improvements in the quality of sound transmitted to the hard of hearing person by adding an assistive listening system in the place of worship and special amplification devices in other areas of the church.

3. Visual substitutes and supplements to speech by having

* notetakers (by hand or by laptop computer).

* computer-assisted notetaking which projects typing onto a screen for reading during the worship service, class, or meeting.

* written copy of the sermon or sermon outline prior to worship.

* announcements printed and distributed to hard of hearing persons, not only conveyed orally.

4. Seating in the front for speechreaders; also good lighting on speakers in worship, classes, and church meetings.

5. Counseling for hard of hearing persons and their families.

6. Leaders and congregations informed about the special needs of hard of hearing persons, including sensitivity training for church staff.


We call upon the Churches to:

1. Initiate dialogue (at national, regional, and local levels) with members of the three groups described in this statement. Listen to their stories and work with them to improve church accessibility, using the recommendations listed above.

2. Facilitate the education of hearing church members by distributing this information widely and by providing opportunities for Deaf and Hard of Hearing persons to directly address hearing congregations and agencies about their needs and hopes for church involvement.

3. Provide financial and networking support to educational programs aimed at training Deaf persons to assume leadership roles (both clergy and laity) in Deaf churches and Deaf ministries.

4. Support the ordination of Deaf persons to pastoral roles in the church.

5. Provide financial and networking support to projects aimed at translating the Bible into American Sign Language (on videotape) and those aimed at providing sign language resource materials for Bible study and faith sharing.

6. Support and advocate for the inclusion of Deaf and Hard of Hearing persons on the governing bodies of church groups at national, regional, and local levels.

7. Welcome and celebrate the gifts that Deaf and Hard of Hearing persons can offer as full members of the Body of Christ.


“So then you are no longer strangers and aliens but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets with Jesus Christ as the cornerstone. In Him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.” (Ephesians 2:19-22)


Adopted Nov. 12, 1997, on Second Reading By the NCC General Assembly