Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Ministering to the Deaf

Note: This is another guest post from my friend Marda. May our Lord grant you opportunities to minister to the deaf!  Everyone needs to hear God's Word. -- Glenn

In my Sunday school class I have a deaf individual.  He comes to class regularly and seems to enjoy being with people.  Some of the people in class, including myself, know simple signing.  I took a course in religious sign at a Christian retreat center and know the very basics.  But this young man needs more than the basics.  How, I wondered, could I reach out to this deaf man?  Here is what I have done so far.
I put out a call to see if there was anyone in church who was fluent in sign (ASL) and found that we were fortunate to have someone.  I have broached the subject to her of coming to our class to interpret for Jimmy.  I'm not sure yet if she can do it because she has worship team practice during part of the Sunday school time.  Ideally, I am hoping to get sign language interpretation both for his Sunday school class and for the church services.  If no one else comes forward from the congregation, I will put out the word to some interpreters I know and to ASL departments at local colleges and universities to see if any of their faculty or advanced students would like interpreting experience.  Who knows?  That might turn into a ministry both to Jimmy and to the interpreter(s) and could lead interpreters to Christ.
If I come up blank on that, I will start contacting ministries to the deaf.  There are some who will come and do ASL classes at churches or retreat centers.  A couple of summers ago I went to such a class and it was helpful to several churches in their outreaches to the deaf.
What about those in the church who have some hearing but have difficulty hearing in the services?  Chances are that you'll have a lot more people in your congregation that fall into that category just as you will probably have more who have visual impairment but some useful vision more than totally blind people.  So what do you do for these members of God's family?  Most churches already have sound systems.  There are things called assisted listening devices which can aid those who are hard of hearing in understanding things like the sermons.  These are handheld receivers that are connected to an earphone and they are wireless.  They amplify sound and they have volume controls so that people can adjust volume and sometimes tone to optimize the performance for their specific kind of hearing loss.  I strongly encourage church groups to look into the purchase of such devices.
There are some simple things you can do right now to welcome hearing impaired individuals into your church or Bible study group.
First, make sure you are looking at the person when you are speaking to them.  Some deaf people are good lipreaders and can get a lot from that.  You don't have to speak any differently, like trying to make your sounds more clear.  In fact, any exaggeration of lip movement to try to more clearly articulate is likely to confuse a person who is used to lipreading typical speech.
Use nonverbal cues as much as possible.  When it is time to greet people, whether at the door or during the service, offer your hand, smile and make eye contact.  Any greeting gestures will most likely be appreciated.
When ushering the person to a seat, make sure they are in full view of any projector where song lyrics, sermon outlines and the like are put up during the service.  Our pastor also has his sermon outline in the bulletin, including the Bible verses, so that hearing impaired individuals who have good reading and writing skills can follow along.
Make sure as well that there is an unobstructed view of the preacher, worship team and others who are participating up in front of the church.
Point out the contact information card that is usually available and encourage the person to fill it out.  Many deaf people can use the phone via something called a relay service.  I believe every state has such a relay.  The way it works is that you call a special number, then the operator calls the number of the person you are trying to reach.  That person has things set up so that all communication is displayed in writing on their system.  When you speak, the operator will type what is spoken and will speak back the responses that your caller has typed.  When a deaf person calls you through relay, the operator makes contact and tells you the name of the person that is calling and asks if you want to accept the call.  Then the process is reversed.  You speak, the operator types, the other person types, the operator speaks it back to you.  It is somewhat cumbersome but many people use it successfully.  As with court reporters and others who take down information, everything is typed exactly as spoken (and spoken as typed) with no comments from the relay operator.  It is designed to be confidential communication.  While not ideal, it is better than nothing and I wouldn't be surprised if the gospel didn't get presented to relay operators in the course of conversations as well.
Follow up with written communication.  Before or after the service, point out any information about your church, tracts or other materials that are available in the lobby.  Offer the information to the person.  After the service, have the pastor, deacon or other visitor follow up with written communication and offer to contact the person using relay.  There are also times when you may want to write notes to a person who has good literacy skills.
Deaf people want to be included too.  Feel free to sit in a pew with them as you would with any other person.  You can cue them to what is happening (how communion works etc.) and the fact that you are reaching out and communicating in any way will generally be appreciated.
In future articles, I will be compiling a list of resources for ministering to people with various disabilities.  For now, I hope this gives you some good ideas as to how to start.

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