Ministry for the Deaf

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The Door tells the stories of some of those involved with churches that cater specifically for the deaf and hard of hearing in the Thames Valley.
by the Revd Ben Whitaker

Martha’s Vineyard stands out in Deaf History. Through a mutation of a recessive gene brought about by inbreeding, a form of hereditary deafness existed for 250 years in this place in Massachusetts in the United States, following the arrival of the first deaf settlers in the 1690s.

Scarcely a family was unaffected and one in four people were deaf. In response to this, the entire community learnt sign language and there was a free and complete communication between hearing and deaf people. Deaf people were scarcely seen as deaf. The writer Oliver Sachs gave his impressions of Martha’s Vineyard when he visited the island: “My first sight of this indeed was unforgettable. I drove up to the old general store in West Tisbury on a Sunday morning and saw half a dozen people gossiping together on the porch. They could have been any old folks talking together – until suddenly they all dropped into sign. They signed for a minute, laughed, then dropped back into speech.”

In sharp contrast to those people in Martha’s Vineyard, sign language users in this country who are deaf, are largely separate from the hearing world. There is very little of the integration which Sachs describes. British Sign Language is a language which is clear and visual so most appropriate for deaf people. Church members have been using and teaching BSL for many years, believing that everyone is a child of God and should have access to the Gospel and to the ministry of the Church. Many clergy, including myself, learnt sign from deaf people themselves.

I have been a Chaplain with deaf and hard of hearing people for 21 years. Before then I worked in two parishes in different parts of the country. What drew me to deaf chaplaincy was that it was different to other forms of ministry I had experienced. I relished the challenge of learning a new language, and getting to know deaf people, to see their slant on the world. It has been a challenging and deeply rewarding experience. At the moment I work part time for the Oxford Diocesan Council for the Deaf. This is a charity and works with deaf and hard of hearing people to meet their spiritual, social and general needs, and to help give them a voice in the Church and in society.

The work I do is not of course limited to sign language users. There are many more who experience hearing loss who lip read to a greater or lesser extent. Some lip read as an alternative to BSL. These people may be profoundly deaf and manage to integrate into the hearing world. Others experience hearing loss due to their age.

Some people use hearing aids which are a great help. However their usefulness depends on the degree of hearing loss. They do not, for instance, help the user detect the direction of a particular noise. And they not only amplify particular sounds but all sounds around the user so that in large gatherings, as with many church meetings and services, holding conversations and hearing people properly can be difficult. Another barrier to using hearing aids is the perception that they are something to be ashamed about. Some people just like to complain that “people are mumbling” and cope as best they can.

There are an estimated 2,000 people in the Oxford Diocese with a total or severe hearing loss, and up to 70 of these are currently active members of the deaf worshipping communities. One in seven members of the population are reckoned to have a significant hearing loss, and their needs and potential contribution are not generally recognised in the hearing communities.

I work within a team of lay and ordained persons. And I work across the Diocese. In the same way as parochial clergy have oversight over people in a particular geographical area, so I think of myself as having concern for deaf and hard of hearing people who live in the Oxford Diocese. I take services in BSL, and support deaf people through pastoral problems. I take funerals in BSL, as well as being with deaf people at happier occasions like baptisms and weddings.
I would very much like to encourage clergy to get involved in the Deaf Church, to come and work with us, to get involved in this unique form of ministry.

The Revd Ben Whitaker is a part-time Chaplain to the Oxford Deaf Church.

Being part of a church signing team

George Chapman from Milton Keynes describes his journey from college to work and how he enjoys volunteering as part of the BSL team at the Cross & Stable Church.

George signs at a wedding at his church.

I’m 23 and live with with my parents. I have a younger brother and younger sister. I spent 10 years in a mainstream school, learning English, Maths, History and Geography as well as taking special lessons in BSL which I passed at Level 1 and 2. I enjoyed learning new things and I made a lot of deaf friends, and some hearing friends as well. I wasn’t very happy after my move to secondary school but I concentrated on my lessons as I wanted to make progress and get ready for my future.

I was at Milton Keynes College for about four-and-a-half years. In the first two years I did English and Maths and Life Skills (like money and community and how to get a job). Then I moved on to two years doing IT. That was excellent. I really improved. I did several work experience placements while at school and college: Newport Pagnell Library and the Co-op in Newport Pagnell, and an office work placement at the college. They helped me to learn how businesses work and to decide what job I’d like to do.

When I left college I started looking for work. It took me about a year. I did volunteering while I was looking, helping at signing classes and at the Job Centre. I did work experience at Morrisons and learned about health and safety and how a supermarket works. Then the Shaw Trust helped me get a job in Sainsbury’s café. That’s a real-life job and it’s been brilliant for me. I was nominated for a ‘Best Colleague’ award and while I didn’t win the national prize, I enjoyed the experience of the award ceremony in London in February.

I help at Cross & Stable Church, an ecumenical Church in Milton Keynes, as part of the signing team. I sign hymns and readings as well as the Lord’s Prayer and the responses. At Christmas I will be doing carols and I’ll help people feel welcome.
I first came to the church when I was young, but I got involved again about four years ago when Sue Baines (a BSL teacher) told me about the signing team and persuaded me to join. I love it.

In the past I’ve been part of a drama club. I was involved for 10 years. I’ve done sign acting as well as BSL interpreting for the Christmas panto. There were some changes at the club and since starting work I’ve needed to concentrate on that, plus saving money and hopefully getting ready for living independently.
At times I find it hard to join in the deaf community, as some deaf events happen in work time and that takes priority. These days I’m concentrating on work, and enjoying being part of the signing team at Cross & Stable.

No limitations for Elizabeth

Elizabeth Payne is deaf but refuses to be limited by other people’s ideas about what she can acheive.

Elizabet Payne

Elizabeth is a member of the Cross & Stable Church, Downs Barn in Milton Keynes, which she attends with her husband Les. She was born and grew up in Kenya, part of a big family, with three brothers and sisters and lots of half-brothers and half-sisters.

Elizabeth learned to sign at her primary school, which was a boarding school for the deaf started originally by Dutch missionaries and an hour’s journey from home. Kenyan sign language has a number of differences from BSL. The alphabet, for instance, is in a one-handed, American style. Elizabeth is multilingual in all sorts of ways, including signing.

Her secondary education was at a deaf vocational school where Elizabeth did a nursing and caring course connected to a local hospital. There she met Les, who came from England to work as a volunteer teacher at a boys’ polytechnic. One of his friends was a volunteer matron at the hospital, and Les and Elizabeth met at a birthday party.
They began their married life in Kenya, but moved to England where their children, Christopher and Joanne, were born. Chris is in the throes of university applications and hopes to do Politics, Philosophy and Economics at Oxford. Joanne is in Year 9 and is starting her GCSEs. They are both hearing but good signers. “Joanne learned to sign very young,” says Elizabeth. “One of her first signs was ‘ice-cream’.”

Elizabeth is a determined learner. When she told her family in Kenya she wanted to be a copy typist, they said, “You can’t do that”, but she points out, “I went to a hearing teaching college and succeeded in qualifying.”

Here in England she has learned to swim and to cycle, and passed her driving test on her first attempt in 2005. Her biggest driving challenge was to track down a driving instructor willing to take a deaf pupil. Elizabeth’s priority is her home and family, but she likes to be busy and in the mornings and evenings she works as a cleaner. She enjoys opportunities to meet up with deaf friends and has a number of craft skills. She was once part of a deaf sewing group.

It was a woman at Homestart that told Elizabeth about the Cross & Stable Church and the signed services there when Chris was a toddler. Like many mums, Elizabeth has known the isolation of caring for infants at home while her partner is having to be out at work. But she still describes one of her greatest joys as family and seeing the children grow up and thrive.

Being deaf has had its frustrations, like people who tell her she can’t do things which she knows she can, or the lack of understanding by Government departments at times (DVLA included) but, says Elizabeth, there are advantages like being able to switch off sometimes.

And new technologies can be a great help in communicating with friends around the world – by text, Skype or Facebook. They’ve helped Elizabeth to keep in touch with her oldest son Kenneth, who’s doing development studies at university in Nairobi, and catch up with friends in Germany and the USA. For Elizabeth it’s ‘total communication’. She is used to living with hearing people and is a good lip-reader, but she loves the chance to be part of a signing community.

Pat Chandler’s story

I am in my 60s and live in Slough.  I am now retired, but worked for more than 25 years with disabled people, helping them on work placements, teaching them how to use the bus, how to shop, how to find work and other ‘ordinary’ life skills. Now retired, I am doing voluntary work in Slough, and volunteer at Oxfam.  My hobbies are doing cross-words, computer games, and learning about different religions from documentaries. I also like to travel.

I am a member of the Roman Catholic Church and I regularly worship at the monthly Cox Green Deaf Church Service run by ODCD.  My local Catholic Church has a link with the Church of England. The reason I come to the Deaf Church, is because it is easier, because it is in the sign language I understand.  The Catholic Church only gives services in spoken English, with no interpreter, but I have very little hearing, and so I do not know what they are saying, especially in the sermon. I just recite the rosary to avoid daydreaming. I did have a friend who interpreted a little bit, but she died some years ago, and no one else is available.  I have asked but my local church only provide signing during the mass. There is no sign language when the mass is over. That is why I like to come to the Deaf Church. All of the service and the preaching is signed in BSL, and I can get a full picture of what the priest or lay preacher is signing in the sermon.

My Christian faith means a lot.  When I go to church, I feel an inner peace within me.  I understand God better every time that I come to Deaf Church, because I can understand better: it helps me to improve and gives me strength and confidence.  I feel much better when I come to Deaf Church: it is really good.

I would like a chaplain who could sign BSL, and make me feel comfortable without worrying about being a Catholic, but would accept me as I am, so I could come and take communion.

I would like to say to other Christians, “Respect each other, respect that we’re all one church.  Whether we’re Jewish, Hindu, Catholic, Church of England, we are all equal.  The church should welcome anybody.  If they believe in God, that’s fine, we’re all equal.  It doesn’t matter if they don’t believe in God, as they are all welcome to God.”

Ken Dyson’s story:

I retired six years ago, and now volunteer for church visiting, and I am a Licensed Lay Minister with the Oxford Deaf Church. I am also a member of the executive committee of the Reading Deaf Centre, and its secretary.

 My main hobbies are sailing and cycling. I have two adult children with three grandchildren between them.  They live between North Oxfordshire and Essex, so living in Reading, I have to do a lot of driving backwards and forwards, visiting. Within the deaf community, I enjoy all the talking we do in our own sign language: sign language is good for telling stories, and they can be very funny. The difficulties of being deaf are those of communication.  For example, when driving to north Oxfordshire, I stopped off for food, and was asked what I wanted, but because of the background noise, people could not hear me, and I could not speak above the noise.

As a Christian, I believe that my life comes from God. I owe God everything, and I have to give something back: it saved me from depression when I was young, so it is important to me. I would like the hearing church to take more interest in the deaf church. Before, we tried to go to a hearing church, but we stopped, because we could not understand what was being said.

 I would like to see more chaplains to the deaf, especially chaplains who are deaf themselves. We need a chaplain who would welcome young deaf people and bring them in to church.

I also believe that a lot of people don’t understand what Jesus said. They need more education and the to read about him for themselves. I recently heard some deaf people arguing over whether or not Jesus was a Jew. Religious education, both in deaf and hearing schools is declining and this is a problem deaf churches and deaf schools need to address.

What can your church do?

Essential for all churches
• A high quality sound system of microphones and loudspeakers to be provided throughout the worship area; ideally bring in a sound engineer to advise you.
• A hearing loop available throughout the church worship area and meeting rooms. (ODCD and other charities can often provide contributions towards the cost.)
• A clear view of the worship leader and preacher.
• Good lighting, falling on the worship leader and preacher.
• A written service with clear responses, produced either clearly on paper, or visible onscreen.

Good to have
• Intercessions: written or on screen.
• Sermon: written and full text or summary points on screen.
• The provision of monitors in church “blind spots” such as behind pillars or in overflow rooms or chapel areas so that the worship leaders or preacher may be seen.
• A high quality sound system of microphones and loudspeakers to be provided in all meeting rooms.
• Avoid speaking over music.

Ideal, in addition to the above
• To provide a BSL interpreter within sight of the worship leader/preacher during services, and at meetings, especially public meetings.
• When available, provision of speech to text software projected onto a visible screen.

And now…
If your church already provides some or all of these facilities, let ODCD know so they can be added to the list of ‘deaf friendly churches’ on the website. Email: odcdpastoralsecretary@outlook.com.