by Robin J. Titterington
For over 15 years Holy Trinity
has provided sign language interpreters to make our worship services and other activities accessible to deaf people. We are blessed with extremely devoted and dependable folks. All of our current interpreters are either graduates of college level training programs and/or nationally
Ah, if it were only that easy! Many people believe a “deaf ministry” consists solely of having the interpreter
present each Sunday. But people with hearing loss are a very diverse group. Many do not know sign language. I will
try to explain some of the challenges our interpreters face each week.
Currently at Holy Trinity, we
have one deafened person who had normal hearing for 19 years and her first language is English (that would be me!) We also have two Deaf people who have never been able to hear and whose first language is American Sign
Language (ASL). ASL is a rich and beautiful language with its own grammar and
syntax. Asking our interpreters to sign for people with such vast communication
needs is akin to interpreting in Spanish and French at the same time.
I grew up with normal hearing
and to interpret only for me, the interpreter would use what is often called, “Signed English.” Almost every word is interpreted. When I see a song signed
that I knew as a hearing person, I truly feel like I am hearing it (I am not, we call this “phantom hearing.”) But our other Deaf parishioners have a difficult time with English since it is not
their native language. This has NOTHING to do with intelligence, it’s simply
a matter of opportunities for communication. ASL is a visual language so often
what is said/sung must be translated into something more concrete.
Most of us would agree that often
the psalms and scripture readings do not use words that are common in 2005. “For
the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of
Midian.” (Isaiah 9:4). Huh?! Interpreters
must study the meaning and context of each word. That is why the church office sends the readings and hymns numbers in advance
so that the interpreters can study.
Music presents a whole new level
of challenge. “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound!” How does grace
sound? And how to we make this song meaningful to someone who has never heard? There is no one way to interpret such things, I would probably sign, “Amazing
grace, how sweet God’s love.” And no matter how hard I try, I have
never been able to figure out how to sign #412 with “loud rushing planets . . . clashing cymbals . . . rustling dry
leaves.” We have no signs for these words because the sounds do not exist
for deaf people.
Sometimes errors are made. I remember
many years ago we had a very new interpreter who was working with us as part of her internship. It was Palm Sunday and the priest was reviewing the services for Holy Week, including Maundy Thursday where
the altar is stripped. Except that’s not what she signed! It came out as
“I will strip on the altar!” I am sure if the choir saw my face,
they probably thought I had been stricken with acute appendicitis as I fought hard not to laugh out loud.
One final challenge for our current
interpreters is that one of our members is also legally blind. Sometimes when
the interpreter is signing the service, I will add information that the member may be missing because she can’t see
what is happening. An example is when I helped her know the location of the advent
I have often felt that hearing
loss is more of a psychological disability than a physical one. It is extremely
isolating and often frustrating. How many times have you used your cell phone today?
That’s just one small part of daily communication that is not available to us.
You can make our members with hearing loss feel welcome. Our interpreters (Marla, Caroline, Susan, Tomina and Kari,
we love you!) have always been willing to facilitate communication before and after services.
And of course a smile and a handshake (or a hug!) are the same in any language!