“Supporting and Including Members Who Are Deaf or Hard of Hearing,” Ensign, June 2020
Julia walked into the meetinghouse with her husband and two daughters. It was their first day in their new ward. As her family wandered into the chapel, she felt as if they were again in a foreign land. She saw others laughing and crying during sacrament meeting but felt left out because she didn’t hear or understand any of what was spoken.
What if Julia’s story were your story?
Julia and her husband are both deaf. They also have a hearing daughter and a deaf daughter. Julia had served as a Sunday School teacher and her husband had served in the elders quorum presidency in the sign language ward they attended in Utah. When a new job opportunity came up, they moved outside of Utah—knowing that the resources they enjoyed in their sign language ward would be diminished. Julia knew they would face new challenges to adapt in their new ward. They were eager to belong, but the language barrier made it hard for them to make connections. The closest deaf group for members in the area met three hours away from their new home.
The members of Julia’s new ward also wanted her family to feel welcome, but they weren’t exactly sure what to do. The ward had no previous experience of working with deaf members who used sign language to communicate. Ward members wondered, “Where do we find interpreters for Sunday services?” “What callings are a good fit for them?” “How do we have interviews with deaf members?”
To help answer these questions and help you better include and support deaf individuals in your congregation, here are a few tips:
Making connections with deaf members will involve stepping outside of your comfort zone to minister to the one. The power to remove the language barriers between deaf members and members who do not use sign language will involve effort, time, and patience.
Follow the counsel of Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin (1917–2008) of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, who taught:
“True disciples of Jesus Christ have always been concerned for the one. Jesus Christ is our greatest example. He was surrounded by multitudes and spoke to thousands, yet He always had concern for the one. …
“… We are to be our brother’s keeper. We cannot neglect this commission given by our Savior. We must be concerned for the one.”1
One way to minister to the one is to remove language barriers. When trying to connect with someone who is deaf, texting or exchanging notes might be an immediate choice of communication, but those methods allow only partial connection. Consider other ideas to create meaningful connections with members in your stake, ward, or branch who are deaf or hard of hearing.
First and foremost, seek out interpreters. A sign language interpreter is a long-term spiritual need for deaf individuals. The first place you should look for interpreters is within your ward, stake, or branch. If no members within your boundaries use sign language, consider looking into sign language interpreting agencies in your area. When it comes to funding for interpreters, priesthood leaders should discuss and seek suggestions for how to use funds and resources as necessary. Ward councils can confer with members who are deaf or hard of hearing to determine actions that would best serve their needs. This will entail a collaborated effort to provide long-term stability for deaf members to be actively involved.
Remote interpreters are also another option to consider via FaceTime or other video chat apps. There are also apps that can be used to convert speech to text. But always remember that the use of technology in the chapel should be approved by presiding leaders.
You can also reach out to other members to see if they are interested in learning sign language or becoming an interpreter for deaf members. It’s best for interpreters in training to team up with a mentor who is already proficient in using sign language to interpret Church meetings.
You could also consider asking deaf members if they would be willing to teach a sign language class. That’s what Chad Stewart did when he was called to be stake president. He knew he had deaf members in his stake, but he didn’t use sign language. So he made arrangements for a class to be taught. President Stewart, along with many other members in the stake, took the weekly class with the intent to be able to converse with the deaf members in their stake. After years of service and practice, President Stewart visits the sign language ward in his stake to give talks and remarks in their language. As he converses with these members, it is apparent that he has become a servant who has followed the call of the Savior to minister to the people one by one, to meet them where they are. You can follow his example and make an effort to connect.
Many Church resources are available in sign language in the Gospel Library app and on ChurchofJesusChrist.org, including the sacrament prayers, hymns, general conference talks, scriptures, and more. Creatively using these materials can help members of your congregation who use sign language to be included.
As always, discuss options with deaf members and prayerfully counsel together about solutions for reducing the language barrier in your congregation.
Deaf members are fully capable of contributing to branches, wards, and stakes in great capacities. We all have need of each other when we come together under the unity of faith. The head has need of the foot, and the eye has need of the hand (see 1 Corinthians 12:15–26). All worthy members can serve. Start by asking deaf members about their experiences, skills, and abilities. Leaders should rely on inspiration and creativity to understand how deaf members can contribute and serve. As with all callings, leaders should ensure that those called to new positions receive the training they need to perform their responsibilities.
Here are a few examples of deaf brothers and sisters serving in their congregations in great capacities:
Stephen Ehrlich (Utah, USA), a deafblind2 member, was called to be the secretary in the elders quorum presidency. His responsibilities include arranging appointments, setting up interviews, and sending reminder and follow-up emails. To communicate, he uses tactile ASL communication and a braille display unit.
Katrina Trevenen (Alaska and Texas, USA) has served as a Young Women president in two different hearing wards.
Kathy and Robert Sutton (Arizona, USA) have served in many leadership callings in their local deaf congregations. Called as a bishop at the age of 23, Robert served in that position for seven and a half years and was later a branch president for the same amount of time. Kathy was a stake Primary president for six years and is currently Young Women president in their branch, where Robert is once again serving as branch president.
Lauren Townsend (New South Wales, Australia) has served as a Primary teacher and a public affairs media specialist
Christina Payne (Texas, USA) has been a Relief Society teacher, using volunteer interpreters to be her voice while she taught. Most of the volunteer interpreters were not Latter-day Saints, but Christina provided them with the materials to review and prepare for her lesson.
Jill Radford (Florida, USA) served as the Primary president for three years in her hearing ward.
Rodney Walker (Utah, USA) served for several years as a bishop and then went on to serve on his stake high council for about nine years. He was also called to be a temple sealer.
Jaime Wilson (Washington, USA) is a Sunday School teacher, and there is a group of deaf members who attend his ward. When he teaches, he both signs and talks for all the members in the class. He also uses interpreters for questions and comments. Jaime’s wife, Ann, follows the same format in her calling as a Young Women adviser.
As you consider the deaf members in your congregation, pray, ponder, search for creative solutions, and then act in faith. Elder Neal A. Maxwell (1926–2004) of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles taught, “God does not begin by asking us about our ability, but only about our availability, and if we then prove our dependability, he will increase our capability!”3
The most important thing you can do to include and show support to the members of your congregation who are deaf or hard of hearing is to open your heart to them. Give them a place where they can feel they belong. Reach out to them, notice them, and love them. Provide opportunities for them to serve and contribute. Work together to find creative solutions. As you do so, you will create a greater sense of love, unity, and belonging among all the members.