(In honor of this year’s International Week of the Deaf (September 19th thru 25th, 2011) – and in solidarity with our Deaf brothers and sisters both here in New York and across the globe – I have asked my colleague Sister Barbara Ann Sgro, Coordinator of Deaf Services for the Hudson Valley, to reflect on her work with and for the Deaf community here in the Archdiocese)
I am used to being asked questions about my religious vocation. There seems to be a natural curiosity for people when they first meet religious Sisters as they probe, “Why did you become a nun, what do nuns do?” Very gently I take the time to explain that I am a Sister, not a nun and that there is a difference between the two. I then proceed to share a little bit about my vocation. So some months after I began my current ministry as a Pastoral Worker with the Deaf, someone I had recently met said to me, “I’d like to ask you a question.” I was prepared, or so I thought …
The “someone” was Deacon Patrick Graybill, a Deaf Deacon from Rochester, NY who is highly revered in the international Deaf Community, and his question was loaded. “Why,” he basically asked, “do you, a hearing person who is still learning American Sign Language (ASL) want to work with the Deaf?” After some seconds (which felt like hours) of processing his question, I responded, “Because without the inclusion of the Deaf, the Church is not whole.”
Deacon Patrick smiled and gave me a quiet nod of affirmation. I relaxed a bit, but truthfully, I’m not sure why. Giving Deacon Patrick the wording of that answer was the easy part; unpacking it is the ongoing challenge of my ministry that I will share with you.
I came into Deaf ministry equipped primarily with a deep love for God’s people, particularly those whom society holds on its margins. I’m not sure the sign language I knew at the time really counted, I had taken an intro class in my early college years as part of my study for working with adults with intellectual disabilities. I knew words (or signs) like eat, toilet, and help. These hardly qualified for everyday conversation.
One of my first challenges was finding out that using the respectful “people first language” that was so much a part of me (e.g., people with intellectual disabilities, people who are deaf) was not the proper way to go. Getting to know the people I minister with taught me that if I was to be an effective pastoral minister, I had to let go of my idea of deafness as a disability. To them, being referred to as Deaf is a positive thing. It’s a source of pride and identity; it is not offensive at all. I was truly amazed by how readily the Deaf welcomed me into their world of Deaf Culture (We’ll talk about what that is in a few minutes.) Everyone was willing to “teach me” but I knew I couldn’t just rest in that. I sensed how important it would be for me to “earn my keep.”
Now here is where hearing people like me have to sort out some confusion. There is the physical condition of being born deaf; that gets a small “d”. But on the other hand, when you talk about someone in relation to his or/her identity within the Deaf Culture that gets a capital “D”. It was hard for me in the beginning to get used to referring to people as Deaf. But now I get it.
Deaf Culture also values Deaf schools and has its own social etiquette rules, e.g. it is actually not rude to walk between two people signing with one another. Deaf Culture is also built around the native language of the Deaf—American Sign Language (ASL). I often hear people say how beautiful this language is. This is true for me also, but even more true is that it is capable of expressing so much more than words ever could. I never realized before how different ASL was from Signed English, which is basically a word for word translation of English. ASL is a true language in and of itself, whereas Signed English is not a natural language but created in hope to make English more visible with one’s hands.
The more I learn about Deaf Culture, the more I realize how “Christian” Deaf Culture can be. I say this because it is rooted in community sharing and caring and respect for one another. I feel Deaf power at its best can be aligned with the social justice taught by Jesus—used for the common good of the community and not for personal gain.
Self –advocacy is another important part of Deaf Culture. Some of us may remember the Deaf President Now protest at Gallaudet University in 1988. Gallaudet University was the first institution for college level liberal arts education of the deaf and hard of hearing in the world. At that time in 1988, the University was seeking a new President. There were several highly qualified candidates. All of them were deaf except one. The students advocated for a Deaf President who culturally understood their needs. Then the hearing candidate was hired. The students held a week-long carefully-engineered protest. At the end of the week, the school replaced the new hearing President with a Deaf President. The University responded in a manner that was socially just.
The need for social justice is so much a part of the Deaf experience. Having the privilege to be in pastoral ministry with the Deaf, two of my primary responsibilies are to support the faith-life / religious and sacramental education of the Deaf and to ensure that Deaf are respected in ways that are socially just. These are very challenging tasks.
How can the Deaf live the Good News in fullness if their access to their Church and the Good News is limited? We are socially conditioned to understand that access basically means ramps, automatic doors and ample seats at the end of a row. But doesn’t access also mean having the opportunity to fully participate in one’s faith? Deaf people are often called “eye people.” Why? Because they take in everything visually. How can we challenge ourselves to make the Gospel more accessible using their primary input mode? I wonder in what ways we can make our Church buildings and our environmental designs more visually accessible. I also wonder how we can challenge ourselves to be more open in inviting the Deaf to their right to taking more active roles in our liturgies.
In 2009, the Pontifical Council for Health Care ministry focused on the hearing-impaired person in the Church. One of its outcomes is that we need to make the Gospel more accessible to the Deaf. Throughout our Archdiocese we facilitate religious education and adult faith formation programs. I have many questions. How might we dream and plan programs that are accessible to the Deaf? How can we tap into the rich faith of the Deaf so that the leaders among them can rise? How can we be more socially just in welcoming the Deaf into their rightful places in the Church. We definitely have technology to our advantage here.
There have been twelve Deaf priests and several Deaf deacons ordained in the United States since 1977. Amazing you are probably thinking, I’m thinking there are many more vocations out there. Their stories are powerful and filled with overcoming struggle. I am hopeful that we have the resolve to change this for the future generations to give glory to God. There is so much deep faith and so much more to be untapped.