Deaf Life27th April 2014

Accessible Church Services

Over the years the absence of deaf friendly church services has been the cause of many tears

by Sarah Lawrence

A social media story caught my eye this week and I found myself reflecting on my own experiences growing up and through adult life. The story was about a decision in the United States about televised church services needing to be captioned.

The case stemmed from a long established legal decision for various church productions to be exempt from the requirement to provide captions for television programmes. The churches and associated TV production companies had made application for this exemption, in effect applying for their programmes to be inaccessible to many deaf people. Since the initial decision,  there have been legal challenges with the churches involved always seeking to maintain their discriminatory stance against deaf people. The exemption was gained through an argument based on cost.

I was delighted to learn that this bulk exemption had been overturned earlier this year, with each church and TV production company now having to make an individual application for exemption. The decision has been received poorly by the churches involved, with some saying that the $500 involved is more than they can afford.

My interest in this story stems from my own experiences of church services in the UK which, by and large, do nothing to make themselves deaf-friendly. At weddings and funerals things are said that I would like to hear, but the church takes no responsibility for including me, it is entirely down to me. For my own father's funeral I was fortunate to have one of the BSL interpreters who often work with me to volunteer to sign the service for me.

It is a topic seldom discussed because of the sensitive nature of any comment on 'the church'. I know that some people will be saying, "If you want an interpreter, pay for your own, why should the church pay." That is fine, I could pay. I could pay several hundred pounds to attend each wedding or funeral that I wish to go to. That's equality right? As a punishment for being deaf, I should pay for the privilege of getting equal access to these services! Better still, rather than make a fuss, 'just don't come', that is how it feels a lot of the time. 

Whilst I believe the church should have been giving consideration to this issue for some time, with more and more people becoming hard of hearing, it is high time they considered the communication needs of their deaf parishioners. However, I also feel that my communication needs are often ignored by friends too. When that happens, it can be very hurtful indeed. People who have known me all my life, people who know I am deaf and have seen me struggle through school and in work, have left me isolated and excluded at church ceremonies too.

A typical example was a funeral involving a close friend some years ago. I wanted to attend to show my respects and the family explained that they would give me a copy of all the speeches that would be made during the service to make sure I was included. Intention was good, but sadly, that did not happen on the day, so I sat there in silence, knowing lovely things were being said about someone close to me, but unable to hear what was being said. I may sound like a spoiled brat explaining how I felt about my exclusion, but I felt hurt at the time, and years later, the hurt remains.

My concern is met today with the news that the one purpose-built church for deaf people is being put up for sale because there are insufficient funds to pay for the upkeep of the building. The St. Saviour's Church on London's Oxford Street has served the deaf community for more than 140 years. The church was built with 'signed' services in mind, making sure line of sight was possible for all of the congregation. Unlike most Anglican Churches which are built facing east, St. Saviour's was built facing north to ensure the best light was available for the service. A significant part of deaf history, the sale of the church will take away the guardian of best practice in respect of deaf-friendly church services.

Important, thoughtful and emotional things take place within the church and I am sad that I do not get a chance to fully share those experiences the same as the vast majority of other people do. Until there is a change in mind-set towards inclusion of deaf church goers, I suppose I will just have to continue to suffer in silence

Article by Sarah Lawrence

posted in Community / Deaf Life

27th April 2014