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February 10, 2005

Bridging the gap with the Deaf community

From: Laurel Leader, MD - Feb 10, 2005

Diane Reynolds

How can hearing people help the deaf or hard-of-hearing not feel isolated? Much of it involves anticipating deaf needs and showing you care.

There are advantages to learning to communicate without spoken words: most of us will know or be a person with a hearing loss at some point in our lives.

Bethany Community Church in Laurel has worked hard to fully include its 30 to 40 deaf members, said Rena Tolsen, director of women's ministry at the church.

A sign language interpreter signs one service every Sunday.

The church holds a "signers-only" Wednesday Bible study and a deaf communion service.

Sign-language interpreters are available for the other Bible studies and communions.

The church also hires interpreters for major events, such as the men's and women's retreats.

The church has a director of deaf ministry, a paid position, Tolsen said, and works hard to include deaf people in decision-making and planning and on leadership teams.

Members of the church's Deaf Worship Team lead the music being sung on stage. The team also helps the deaf parishioners worship.

"It would seem oppressive to them to have a hearing person tell them how to worship God," Tolsen explained.

The church even offers sign language classes.

"We expect the hearing people to cross the aisles, not the deaf," she explained.

Tolsen has learned to sign, but many parishioners don't, she said, even after a decade of opportunities.

Bethany would like a deaf pastor to lead a service, but this has yet to happen, she said.

"We try to think through the needs of the deaf, but they have to remind us," she said. "I think that gets tiring for them."

Oliva also has a few suggestions for communicating with deaf or hard-of-hearing people:

* It's critical to maintain eye contact, she said.

* A light tap on the shoulder is acceptable to get a deaf person's attention.

*Read and learn about deafness and the Deaf community.

*Focus on getting together with deaf or hard-of-hearing people one-on-one.

*Finally, "learn sign language, learn sign language, learn sign language," she said.

That's not easy, said Oliva's friend and fellow teacher Anne Simonsen, a hearing person.

Even after at 18 years at Gallaudet, she doesn't consider herself perfectly adept at sign language.

"I had no idea how difficult it would be to become fluent," she said, crediting the support and acceptance of her students as critical to her making it, especially in the early days.

Now she gets frustrated sometimes that hearing people don't sign, such as when she needs to communicate with someone across a room and doesn't want to shout.

While she came to Gallaudet because she needed a job, "I can't tell you how happy I am I did it," she said, because of the warmth and acceptance of the community.

She encourages hearing people to learn a few signs even if they can't learn the whole language.

"It says, 'I care about you,' " she said.

E-mail Diane Reynolds at

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