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He Who Has Eyes to Hear

Signing worship for persons with hearing impairments

While the choir sings, a young woman stands to the side and gestures with her hands and arms to the congregation. During the sermon she does the same, keeping pace with the pastor's words.

Why the waving and gesturing? This young woman is helping others hear. She is interpreting the songs, the sermon, and the prayers, using American Sign Language.

Most of our churches do not have such an interpreter to help those with limited hearing, but perhaps we should. Much of Christian worship is auditory. We sing out loud. We listen to the reading of the Scriptures and to the sermon. And we participate in spoken prayers. What does this auditory emphasis mean for those who are hearing impaired? Are we limiting their worship expression, ignoring their worship needs?

We asked these and other questions of two people who have long been involved in working with the hearing impaired. Suzanne Shuart has been "signing" worship services for twelve years, and Esler Shuart has helped organize successful signing programs in three churches.

■ What limitations do hearing-impaired people experience in worship?

Hearing-impaired people can only see what is taking place: the movements of the minister, organist, choir director, handbell ringers. They are unable to benefit from the content of the words and the sounds of the music.

■ Wouldn't teaching such people lip-reading take care of this limitation?

Partially, but not completely. Lip-reading (or speech reading) enables the hearing-impaired person to recognize 50 percent or less of spoken and sung words. As one study has pointed out
in lipreading…the child does not perceive every word in an utterance, but rather, catches the key words, or even only the root parts of words (e.g., boy instead of boys, walk instead of walked). The words that are ignored are words that are not understood, as well as the function words (e.g., to, the, at, for) that tie the communication together.
(Hart and Rosenstein, 1964)

Finger spelling, which involves using your fingers to spell each letter of the alphabet, is larger and easier to perceive than speech reading, but there is still a perception difficulty, even for adults. For example,few would catch the spelling of an unusal proper name the first time it is presented at normal speed. In finger spelling, as in speech reading, gaps are often filled in through knowledge of the structure of language.

Signs present larger, more concrete symbols in communication than either speech or finger spelling and are thus easier for deaf children to pick up.

■ Can you summarize or describe the signing?

The signer uses hand signs and finger spelling. Hand signs communicate words or phrases, many of which look something like the object being signed. For example, the hand sign for tree includes finger motion that resembles the movement of the branches and leaves in the wind.

■ Are special gestures needed for a worship service?

The signer must learn specific signs and gestures for religious or biblical words and phrases. For example, the diagrams with "Spirit of the Living God" show the signs for "Spirit" and "God."

■ Since hearing-impaired people are unable to hear music, how meaningful is the signing of songs?

The signing of songs is very meaningful since it enables the hearing-impaired and deaf worshipers to sign along with the singers, following the rhythm and repetition of the songs.

■ Where can one get training for signing?

Such organizations as Gaulladet College in Washington, D.C., and the Bill Right Ranch in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, offer training in signing. Since attending such institutions isn't possible for some, ASL/SEE instructors can also be hired to come into a local church to instruct hearing-impaired people from the church and community.

For skilled and committed students, training can be completed in twenty hours over a two-week period. This training will provide the basic knowledge and skill of signing, but to be truly effective, the training must continue on a regular basis with practice and several refresher courses.

Some groups choose to learn more gradually through a class that meets once a week for a church year.

■ How does a church get started with a signing program and what resources are available?

A church first must evaluate need. Are there any hearing-impaired or deaf persons in the church or community who need and will use a signing program?

If the answer is yes and the church is committed to beginning a program, one of the best resources may be churches who have already established successful signing programs. The persons responsible for setting up and maintaining signing programs in these churches will have ideas about training, introducing the program to the congregation, and finding volunteers who are willing to sign services.

Large denominations (e.g., Baptist, Lutheran, Roman Catholic) and several Christian organizations for deaf and hearing-impaired people (e.g., Joni and Friends) also offer excellent resources, including books, pamphlets, films, retreats, and conferences.

For Reference

The Joy of Signing by Lottie L. Riekehof. Springfield, MO: Gospel Publishing House.

Sign Language for Everyone by Cathy Rice. Nashville: Thomas Nelson.