Mar 15, 2000

How should we proclaim the Good News to those who cannot hear? A rehabilitation counselor looks at problems in "signing" vs."interpreting" the Liturgy by Joseph Tevington

Online Edition – Vol. VI, No. 1: March 2000

How should we proclaim the Good News to those who cannot hear?
A rehabilitation counselor looks at problems in "signing" vs."interpreting" the Liturgy

by Joseph Tevington

Studies show that there are far more people with disabilities than most people imagine, yet few realize that people with disabilities are dramatically absent from parish life. In our day, the Church has taken great care to announce the Good News that the life of each person with a disability is sacred and precious notably in Pope John Paul II’s 1995 letter, Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life). The response of many of our parishes to Catholics with disabilities, however, gives a poor witness to the Gospel of Life.

Considering our Lord’s Gospel of Life, it would be reasonable to assume that people with disabilities would feel more welcomed within our parishes than within the world in general. But while there are, no doubt, numerous individual exceptions to this trend, Catholics with disabilities are much more likely to be inactive Catholics than their non-disabled counterparts.

Although it’s true that individuals are responsible for their own attendance at church, the situation for people with disabilities seems complicated by other factors. Many Catholics are ignorant of the the problem, and of practical steps that can be taken to overcome them. Despite heroic exceptions, most parishes do not seem to be welcoming places, and accommodations for the disabled are more likely to be found in a local bus station or supermarket than in the house of God.

The Holy Father’s clarion call in Tertio Millennio Adveniente, on the eve of the new millenium, applies here: "Acknowledging the weakness of the past is an act of honesty and courage…. Among the sins which require a greater commitment to repentance and conversion should certainly be counted those which have been detrimental to the unity willed by God for His people". Attending to the problems of people with disabilities is a grave responsibility.

Children of a lesser God?
The Bishops’ Committee on Liturgy (BCL) of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops has moved to establish American Sign Language (ASL) as an authorized liturgical language. The bishops endorsed a strategy for promoting that "unity willed by God" between sign language users and others in the Church.

The BCL addresses the needs of people with hearing losses who rely on ASL. But the vast majority of hearing-impaired people do not. The BCL endorsement of ASL does not address the reality that "interpreted" (rather than "signed") Masses must be the ordinary means to meet the pastoral needs of ASL users, because there are few ASL-fluent priests across the country.

In nearly three years since the BCL endorsement, minimal evidence is apparent of official follow-up on the pastoral needs of people with hearing losses be they ASL users or not. They are our brothers and sisters, not "Children of a Lesser God."

Signers and interpreters
The Adoremus Bulletin article, "Translation Without Words…" [AB June 1997], notes that Sunday Masses have been interpreted in sign-language for thirty years. However, interpreted Sunday Masses are infrequent and even non-existent in many areas, though they are much more frequent than Masses celebrated by an ASL-signing priest, which some view as the ideal.

In small localities with comparatively large pockets of ASL users, this may be practical. In general, however, the populations of ASL users is small and scattered unlike some ethnic communities where virtually everyone shares a language other than English. ASL users live among hearing people (and others with hearing losses), who do not exclusively rely on ASL. Ninety percent have hearing parents, and ninety percent of their own children are hearing.

In the absence of celebrants and lectors who are able to sign for themselves, an interpreter facilitates communication. Assuming equal sign language proficiency, an interpreter (who is not also speaking) is actually more understandable to an ASL user than a person who is simultaneously signing and speaking. Simultaneously trying to sign and speak interferes with the natural rhythms of both communication modes.

There is more potential for liturgical abuse by a signing priest than by an interpreter. Signing priests may or may not also use their voice. Some signing priests may have already "approved" their own ASL translations, independent of approval or critique from the hierarchy!

While interpreters constitute a small and specialized group, I estimate that fewer than 50 Catholic priests in the United States are truly fluent in ASL. In light of this fact, interpreted Sunday Masses must be the ordinary means of addressing the pastoral needs of ASL users. And since an interpreted Mass is not being celebrated in ASL, it does not require an official translation. To invite more ASL users into the Church, the gifts of ASL-fluent priests should be better shared across dioceses for the Sacrament of Reconciliation, special missions and retreats.

Interpreting needs serious attention
The National Catholic Office for the Deaf has developed a "Policy for Working with Sign Language Interpreters in Catholic Religious Settings". The article "Translation Without Words…" suggests that interpreters are being poorly supervised by bishops. I suspect that many bishops do not even realize that ASL is not encoded English and fail to appreciate that proper interpreting cannot be done by non-professionals.

Clearly, liturgical interpreters need their communication skills supported by proper theological understanding. Heretofore, we have settled for far less than this combination. I have personally witnessed top-notch professional interpreters make major blunders. At a papal Mass, translation of "communion of saints" came out as "Eucharist of the saints". In our nation’s capital, I saw a translation of "This is My Body" that appeared to be "This represents My Body".

Ask a liturgical interpreter and you will be told that their biggest challenge comes from the failure of others to take their role seriously. At many Sunday Masses, readings and prayers are raced through so quickly that they are incomprehensible to the congregation. Such irreverence prevents an interpreter from properly operating, because he (more often, she) simply cannot understand or keep up. Interpreted Masses may have been around for thirty years, but ignoring of the needs of ASL signers and other interpreters are common.

Millions of Americans have hearing loss
The public is often surprised to learn that 8-10% of the population has a hearing loss, as revealed in a 1994 study by the Centers for Disease Control. Among people with hearing losses, Schein and Delk distinguished "deaf" people from others who are "hard of hearing". "Deaf" people’s loss is so severe that they cannot hear or understand speech. Schein and Delk found that only 0.2% of the general population has been "deaf" since before their working years. While hearing losses associated with aging are far more common, the needs of people who are "pre-vocationally deaf" are more challenging and more difficult to address effectively.

"Lipreading" or "speechreading" can be useful for some people who are hard of hearing. But this method has serious limitations. To make it effective, a person needs face-to-face conversations, minimal background noise, and a considerate conversational partner to derive any benefits. Even at that, it can be a struggle.

Despite the world’s best amplification systems, many people with hearing losses will not benefit. Signed and interpreted Masses need to be further supplemented by a text to read from.

The US Bishops have given us several guidelines on the treatment of people with disabilities (1978, 1988, 1995, 1998). The good news is that there are people who make it their business to develop ways to accommodate people with hearing losses, as well as others with disabilities. They need to be heard.


Archdiocese of Seattle (1994). "People with disabilities: a study of ministry". Origins, 24 (13).

Baker, C. & Battison, R., Eds. (1980). Sign Language and the Deaf Community. Silver Spring, Maryland: National Association of the Deaf.

Centers for Disease Control (1994). "Findings on the size of the population of people with disabilities".

Diaz, M.B. (1999). "Border City Adopts All-Spanish Policy". Associated Press. August 20, 1999.

The Holy See (1983). Charter of the Rights of the Family.

Markowicz, H. & DiPietro, L. (1977). American Sign Language: Fact and Fancy. Washington, DC: Gallaudet Division of Public Services.

National Catholic Office for the Deaf. Policy for Working with Sign Language Interpreters in Catholic Religious Settings. Silver Spring, Maryland: National Catholic Office for the Deaf.

Pope John Paul II (1995). Evangelium Vitae.

Pope John Paul II (1994). Tertio Millennio Adveniente.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Sampley, D. (1989). A Guide to Deaf Ministry: Let’s Sign Worthy of the Lord. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

Schein, J. & Delk, M. (1970). The Deaf Population of the United States. Silver Spring, Maryland: National Association of the Deaf.

Solomon (1994). "Deaf is beautiful." New York Times Magazine. August 28, 1994.

Tevington, J. (1997). "Catholic Families of Individuals with Disabilities". Catholic Family Perspectives Weekly. June 1, 1997.

National Conference of Catholic Bishops (1998). Welcome and Justice for Persons with Disabilities, Washington.

NCCB (1995). Guidelines for Celebration of the Sacraments with Persons with Disabilities, Washington.

NCCB (1988). Celebrate and Challenge, Washington.

NCCB (1978). Pastoral Statement on People with Disabilities, Washington.

 Joseph Tevington, who lives in Morrisville, Pennsylvania, is a certified rehabilitation counselor specializing in services to deaf people. He has a Master’s degree in deafness rehabilitation, and holds a Master’s degree in religious studies from St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Philadelphia. Mr. Tevington also has a catechetical diploma from the Sacred Congregation for Clergy.


Joseph Tevington