It has been my experience that when Quakers discuss diversity, they usually think of those of color or those with various sexual orientations, but rarely of those who are profoundly deaf. This is reasonable, of course, since apparently there are very few profoundly deaf Quakers or attenders who participate in monthly or yearly meetings, and fewer still who serve as representatives to regional and national gatherings. If a meeting has experienced a Friend with a hearing loss, it is usually someone who has lost his or her hearing later in life and who uses spoken English as a primary means of communication—not sign language.
Two of my daughters are profoundly deaf and use sign as their dominant language modality. They wear assistive listening devices but have difficulty when the setting is noisy or when listening to grammatically complex spoken English. The girls cannot locate those called to speak who don’t stand or who are behind them.
We currently live in Texas, but we are members of Penn Valley Meeting in Kansas City, Missouri, and that is where the girls attended meeting for the past decade. It meant a lot to us that throughout those years various Penn Valley members assisted in locating certified sign interpreters for First-day school and other events, and didn’t just expect us to do it. After all, we have always taken the perspective that it is not just some of our family members who require an interpreter. People who don’t sign also need one to communicate with those who are deaf and sign.
Only 40 percent of English speech is visible on the lips and even less from a distance. The payoff for committing to hiring a certified interpreter is expressed well in the words of Marcy Luetke-Stahlman, one of my deaf daughters: "Penn Valley Friends know us beyond our deafness; they know our personalities—they know us as real people."
I interviewed Marcy, now 15 years old, for a draft of this article when she was 13. She reminisced with fondness about the times when she and her sister Mary Pat were asked to explain things about their deafness. She also felt valued for her perspectives in discussions. Early on, many Friends at Penn Valley Meeting began to finger spell their names during the meeting introduction time, efforts that continued for several years. "They really accepted who we were," she commented. Penn Valley members also approved the projected interpreter cost each year when the meeting budget was considered.
My other deaf daughter, Mary Pat Luetke-Stahlman, now 17 years old, said of worship, "I focus on something until I kind of ‘space out,’ then I wait for divine messages just as hearing people do." Although she never has been led to speak during worship, she wonders about meetings that do not include interpreters. "If Quakers believe that there is that of the Spirit in each of us, hearing Friends are going to miss a divine message when a deaf Friend stands to give it. Also," she adds, "not having an interpreter is against the Americans with Disabilities Act, but more importantly, it isn’t Quakerly."
Mary Pat and Marcy have attended meeting for worship for various periods of time on First Days. When they were younger, they were often eldered for signing to each other when hearing Friends were silent.
Now they sit quietly, eyes open, settling their mind and listening within themselves for divine messages, much as hearing people do. Should someone feel moved to speak, the interpreter uses a sustained touch on the girls’ arms or legs so that they are aware someone is speaking. Then they can "listen" visually to what is said by watching the signs of the interpreter. As is true when people have any degree of hearing loss, it is helpful if those who speak stand and pause before doing so. This allows those who do not hear well to identify the speaker and be prepared for the message at its beginning. (I refer readers to my article, "Friends with Hearing Loss," Friends Journal, November 1997, pp. 23-24, describing some easy ways meetings can incorporate the deaf.)
For larger gatherings of Quakers, we indicate the need for interpreting on the registration form. We write it in if such a need is not listed. When we used to attend Missouri Valley Friends Conference, this small gathering of Midwestern Friends always covered the expense of the sign interpreter, although the treasurer has often been able to access funds from the state commission of the deaf. Established by state legislatures, such advocacy groups exist in many states.
Having an interpreter has allowed Marcy and Mary Pat to socialize and to join in with the other children for service projects. Marcy remembers the teamwork involved in bagging up clothes and toys in boxes and cleaning up outside areas. However, she regrets that hearing children could talk and work during these activities while she could not, and she sometimes felt left out of the fun of it all. She is quick to say that she wishes there were more deaf Quakers. Still, Marcy is glad to be Quaker and to be counted among those she describes as "reasonable and rational people with peaceful ways." After the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, she made many origami peace cranes to share with teachers and students at her school. During the war on Iraq, she voiced her opposition to the war despite pressure from teachers who were retired from the military and were frustrated that she would not be influenced to change her stand.
Our family attended the annual FGC Gathering for several years. We had some struggles in the initial years, but by about our third summer the Junior Gathering and Special Needs committees began to hire skilled interpreters so that everyone could communicate with each other throughout the week. Most years, interpreters were hired for the morning sessions so my husband, Kent, and I could attend a workshop; we were given work-exchange grants to interpret evening activities. Kevin Lee, who works with young Friends at the Gathering and elsewhere, consulted Mary Pat and Marcy about the titles of good books about deafness and signing, which he then purchased for young children and staff. Likewise, the FGC Gathering Bookstore has made additions to their collection that include deafness and signing.
When Mary Pat was in the junior high Gathering group she wrote a poem (see sidebar). At the end of the week, I shared with Junior Gathering staff that the greatest gift they had given our family over the last dozen summers was that of treating all children at the Gathering as special and deserving of individual attention. Their doing so resulted in our deaf girls being treated just as special as everyone else—in other words, no different than the other kids, and therefore equal. Ironically, it was the last time Mary Pat was willing to attend the Gathering; socializing was just too difficult.
Mary Pat is currently in the Quaker Scholars Leadership Program at Guilford College. Having already e-mailed her roommate, Erin, she is impressed with Erin’s use of "we" when Mary Pat has shared her concerns about communicating. "We’ll have to find quieter places," Erin responded. She is looking forward to being around like-minded Friends. Always one to further a good discussion, she thinks that the small class sizes as well as the majority of classes arranged in circles for discussion will better enable her to debate serious issues. She visited the school last year and commented, "I think that they will be willing to listen to my signs and argue with me." After that visit, she looked for Guilford students at the School of the Americas protest at Fort Benning, Georgia, in November 2001, knowing some had attended the demonstration previously.
Before our family demonstrated at Fort Benning, I found a story about a deaf Quaker grandfather in a book by Margaret Bacon. The man hid an escaped slave among a load of brooms in his wagon during the Civil War. Using his deafness to positive advantage, the man ordered his grandson, who normally served as his interpreter, to hide as well. Moments later the elderly Quaker was able to respond truthfully to authorities who were in pursuit that he was unable to hear their questions.
Mary Pat and Marcy used this story to help them plan a strategy when they attended the School of the Americas demonstration. The girls did not want their parents or hearing sisters, Breeze and Hannah, who had been arrested the previous year, to go with them to interpret for the soldiers. Instead, they wanted to be able to respond in the moment and in a positive manner, as did the historical deaf Quaker.
While at the Quakers Women’s Retreat recently, I heard of a project at Greene Street Friends School in Philadelphia. Hearing and deaf teachers from the Pennsylvania School for the Deaf, located nearby, visit once a week to teach sign to the preschool and kindergarten students. When deaf students are mainstreamed at Greene Street, they are paired with a hearing child. It sounds like a beautiful project.
Historically and currently, there are deaf Quakers among us. Some are oral, some sign English, and some sign ASL. All bring an aspect of diversity to meetings that should be embraced—and funded. I wonder if Friends realize that the insult of not funding an interpreter is not unlike putting some Friends on a bench in the back of meeting—perhaps even worse, because without interpreting or amplifying systems Friends with hearing loss cannot participate at all. These challenges test our faith, but good, creative solutions are available.