Friday, January 22, 2010

Deafness in the Catholic Church

At his blog, Father Z posted this question he received and asked for answers since he didn't have one himself:

I have often wondered if there was any specially approved liturgy for profoundly/ severely deaf people prior to the liturgical reforms of the ‘60s? Surely, there must have been some adaptations of the Tridentine Mass to accomadate their needs? For instance, a Tridentine facing the people, or even it being said in sign langauge or something?

In the comments, there are no specific answers and the general consensus is that there were no provisions for the extraordinary form of the Mass prior to the introduction of the new Mass. The comments though focus more on the larger question of how best to accommodate the deaf in Mass. My comments throughout are from the perspective of an adult who has lost his hearing after already being fluent in English. The commenter Ana argues from the point of view of a congenitally deaf person (she is hearing, but her brother is deaf and she is a sign language interpreter).

I could summarize it all, but it would be time consuming. Just go check out the thread.


Anastasia said...

This topic can be a heated topic for me, because, although I was not raised Catholic, the Church I attended growing up lacked a significant offering for deaf people and I remember my mom being made to sit on the last row to sign for my brother.

As a result, when I hear the attitude that all we need to do is give a deaf person pen and paper to communicate or a book to read, my immediate response is one of irritation. While I realize there is a level of ignorance regarding the deaf world, I also see a lack of desire to understand deaf society and their needs.

One of the biggest issues I have noted is that people automatically compare their experiences with silence and following along with a missal and figure it will be the same for the deaf person. Given the fact that I grew up with around the thought process of a deaf brother, this is an automatic issue for me and, in fact, one of the biggest issues for me.

At first, I figured that the process of "thinking in English" was just a problem for those who are congenitally deaf, but I have come to understand this is an issue even for those who lost their hearing later in life. This means that for many, handing them a missal and a written sermon will only lead to bewilderment and diminish their interest in the EF or OF of the Mass.

One of my first experiences with sign language and the Catholic Church was just as discouraging as reading the comments on Fr. Z's blog. We have one Church locally that provides and interpreter at one Mass. Unfortunately, the interpreter for this Mass is late every week due to interpreting at another Church in the area. As a result, I volunteered to interpret the beginning of the Mass until such time as the paid interpreter could arrive. The priest point blank told me that was unnecessary and they would manage until the interpreter could arrive. This was disheartening for me and has, in many ways, had an impact on my efforts to bring my baby brother to the Church.

Deafness and sign language are not just issues of language barriers. Deafness is a culture of its own and has a way of thinking that is vastly different than reading a written translation.

When it comes to the EF, I figure there was a way to adapt the Mass to deaf people as there is a deaf school, St. Agnes, I believe, that has been around since the early 1900s. Sadly, in the process of establishing continuity, many want to do things in a manner that does not adjust to the needs of those in attendance. When I speak of this, I am not speaking of the Mass in the vernacular, I am speaking of special needs that may not have been expected by those preparing the Missal. Christ would want us to minister to all who approach the altar.

Another issue that will have to be addressed is how and if deaf priests will be able to say the EF. I believe there are minor adjustments that can be made to meet their needs just as priests who were injured were given special provisions to say Mass prior to the Second Vatican Counsel and the OF.

Peace to all!


Jacob said...

Excellent, thank you.

I wanted to ask you about something. What your experience might be with education for the deaf and mainstreaming them vs. sending them off to residential schools.

Thinking about the thread and my own reading on the Church and the deaf, it crossed my mind just how inadequate the Church's efforts must be for deaf youth who can't participate in normal religious education in parochial schools or things like CCD.

Anastasia said...

With my brother, he attended a local school for elementary and most of middle school in a self contained class for the deaf and for high school attended a residential school. "Mainstreaming" deaf students can be done in certain situations, but may not be the solution in many other situations.

Given the fact that my family uses sign language regularly to communicate with my brother, my brother has an advantage that many deaf people lack since most families with deaf children do not learn sign language. The extent of this problem has become clear to me as I have dealt with counselors who specialize in working with the deaf.

As my brother was growing up, many deaf "professionals" discouraged our family's attempts to learn sign language. Sadly, it seems like most of this encouragement was due to the thought process that a deaf child will not learn to speak if the family uses sign language. I'm not sure what the current thought process is regarding parents learning sign language to communicate with deaf children, but I doubt it has changed much.

Thankfully, my parents did not listen to this advice just as my mother did not listen to advice to abort my brother.

This means, we are looking at a dual problems -- the deaf child that has communication at home and those that do not. Ideally, I believe a child should live at home with family members who can communicate with the child so I am strong advocate of families learning sign language while the child is young. Until families learn sign language, residential programs will remain the easy way

As for religious education of deaf Catholics, this becomes thorny issue as parents have the primary responsibility to educate their children. If parents are unable to communicate with their deaf child, the lack of proper religious education is the parents' fault. At the same time, the Church should make us of modern technology to provide DVDs in sign language for educational purposes. In areas with larger deaf populations, there are certification programs for Catechists oriented towards the deaf. Sadly, if we have small numbers of deaf people attending Church, many areas will not be able to offer these added problems.

This is a problem that requires family, communal, and Church efforts to incorporate the deaf into the Church in a manner that meets their needs.

Jacob said...

Thank you. I don't have anything to add after that excellent summation. From what you describe, I would say it's a lot more likely that low Mass attendance among the deaf is not tied to post-Vatican II changes.