Musical Interludes for the Deaf

Today at church, I wanted to ask the sign interpreter a question after the service. When I got over to her, though, there was another person talking to her already, who asked her about the responses she had gotten from other hearing people in the congregation. (We’ve only had a sign interpreter coming for about a year, so it’s still a new and surprising phenomenon to some people.)

She said that on the most part, people were complimentary and said they enjoyed watching her sign, or were happy she was there to provide the service, etc. A few people, however, had chastised her, and the deaf and hard-of-hearing people she was interpreting for by extension, for signing during the musical interludes. Because it was disrespectful. Because they weren’t listening.

Listening? Seriously, what are the deaf supposed to do during a musical break in an otherwise verbal service? The interpreter said that it is quite common for the deaf to use those times to catch up on news and chat, because they’re not really getting much from the music. Certainly, today it might have been more interesting for them to watch, because they were sitting where they could see the musicians, but, when the piece is a long accompanied violin solo of more than five minutes, is suspect it gets kind of predictable. Why not sign? It’s not like it’s a loud distraction.

The interpreter said that she’ll often sign things that describe the music, like, “It sounds like children skipping over water,” or “It’s a very upbeat piece.” Today, in fact, they were actually having a discussion about the music while it was playing, which is about as attentively respectful as anyone could want. The kid who was playing violin today, a guest performer, was really, really good, but his pieces were longer than usual, and I had actually been wondering at the the time whether it was kind of rude to the deaf congregants to have such long stretches of essentially nothingness in the middle of the service. They didn’t seem to mind, since I’m sure they deal with this all the time, but the interpreter did say they probably won’t be coming to next week’s service, because it’s a congregational hymn-sing.

This whole discussion raised some interesting questions for me. As inclusive as UUs like to think themselves, clearly we need more disability awareness in our congregation. Also, is it rude to have too-long wordless music selections? Or is it okay, since it is a predominantly hearing congregation, and our signers already have their own coping methods in place? Either way, greater awareness wouldn’t hurt.


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