Hearing with the Heart

Despite communication challenges, Church members who are deaf make many contributions and enrich the lives of those around them.

It is time to sing the opening hymn during a ward sacrament meeting. Recorded music begins to play, and the congregation watches the chorister as well as the words to the hymn, which are projected onto a large screen at the front of the chapel. A black cursor moves underneath each introductory note, keeping time with the music. As the song begins, only a few voices sing out. Instead, a rippling sea of gracefully moving hands uses sign language to “sing” the hymn.

Similar scenes occur in varied locations as members of deaf wards and branches gather together to worship. Currently there are 25 deaf wards and branches in the Church.

When there are not enough deaf members to form a branch, the deaf attend a hearing ward. Despite communication challenges, Church members who are deaf make many contributions and enrich the lives of those around them through their service in the kingdom.

Reaching Out

As sign language is usually deaf members’ native language, communication difficulties can cause them to feel alone at times. Gohar Nisar, the only deaf member of the Halifax Ward, Huddersfield England Stake, says: “The main challenge is, of course, communication and feeling involved in a hearing ward. It’s not easy being in a ward of a hundred people where only about three or four are able to talk with you.”

Deaf members do not have to feel alone if members reach out with Christlike love. Elder John K. Carmack, formerly of the Seventy, has said: “May we look for every opportunity … to decrease isolation [and] increase inclusion of all. … Let us find linkage through love and through Christ and His gospel.” 1

Lawrence Prasanna David, counselor in the presidency of the Bangalore Second Branch, Bangalore India District, strives to help deaf members of the branch feel included. He says, “We try to be friendly with them always so that they may not feel separated from hearing members.” Brother Ramesh Babu, a deaf member of the Bangalore Second Branch, says that hearing members “have a good relationship with us as brothers and sisters in the gospel, and they involve us in each and every activity. They help us to grow in the gospel.”

Many hearing members overcome language barriers by learning sign language. Dominique Michael and others in the Bangalore Second Branch learned sign language so they could interpret for deaf members. Many sign language missionaries also teach sign language classes. Taylor Hartley, who helped teach classes in South Korea as a full-time missionary, says, “When hearing members developed new language abilities, deaf members were no longer ostracized, and hearing members could enjoy conversing with them. All were edified.”

Maria Salve Duplito became a blessing in the life of Joselito Cannon, a deaf member of the Bago-Bantay Ward, Quezon City Philippines Stake. After his conversion, Joselito arrived half an hour early each Sunday. He always came prepared with a copy of the sign language alphabet, giving it to anyone who was interested in learning. Even though he could not understand the words that were spoken, Joselito sat diligently through all three meetings. Then, Sister Duplito began taking her laptop computer to meetings. She typed each speaker’s message so that Joselito could read what was said, allowing him to partake of gospel teachings.

Touching Others’ Lives

Most deaf members are anxious to communicate. Heidi Odulio describes how one deaf member in the Philippines was able to convey his feelings on fast Sunday. When this man went to the pulpit to share his testimony, many undoubtedly wondered how they would be able to understand him because he did not speak, there was no interpreter, and few in the congregation knew sign language. However, this brother clearly had a great desire to share his testimony and had come prepared. As he stood at the pulpit, he unrolled a number of large strips of paper, where, using big letters, he had painstakingly written out his testimony. One by one, the man held up the strips of paper so that his ward family could read his testimony. The Spirit was strong, and many in the congregation were visibly touched.

Some people may think deaf people are limited in what they can do, but Richard Snow, a teacher at the Jean Massieu School for the Deaf and the Salt Lake Community College, who is himself deaf, says, “Deaf people are capable and can do anything others can do except hear perfectly.”

Wayne Bennett is an example of such a capable person. When Wayne was three, a doctor predicted that he would never be “college material” because of his deafness. However, not only did Wayne go to college; he entered at age 14. Since then, he has completed a bachelor’s degree and two master’s degrees. He served a full-time mission working with the deaf and has served in six bishoprics, in both hearing and deaf wards and branches, and as a temple worker for seven years. Currently he is president of a deaf branch in California.

Deaf members around the world are living the gospel and are busily engaged in serving the Lord. President Bennett says that one area of interest for many deaf members is family history. “I have come up with almost 6,000 names,” he says. “Another member I know has come up with about 12,000 names.”

Temple worship is an important area of focus. Tom Wilson, coordinator for the deaf program at the Jordan River Utah Temple, says, “I am very excited to see the wonderful work the deaf do as they serve the Lord in doing temple work.” Temple attendance was made easier for deaf patrons when temple information was put on closed-captioned videos. To use this service at most temples, patrons fill out a language card at the front desk when entering. Printed cards are available for certain parts of the endowment and other ordinances. Also, interpreters and deaf ordinance workers can usually be provided if sufficient notice is given. Deaf members should check with the temple in their district to find out what services are available.

At some temples, monthly endowment sessions are conducted in sign language. In 1998 deaf members were able to receive the full beauty of all temple ordinances in sign language when Rodney W. Walker was set apart to be the first deaf sealer in the history of the Church.

Missionary Work among the Deaf

Since the first missionaries to serve the deaf were called in 1968, missionary work among the deaf has continued to grow. Each year about 30 to 40 sign language missionaries, many of them deaf themselves, enter the Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah.

When Eric F. Spanbauer was a boy, the missionaries stopped at his door in Decatur, Illinois, but Eric says that he and his parents “never understood them because they couldn’t communicate with us in sign language.” After high school, Eric went to Gallaudet University, a world-renowned university for the deaf. When some Latter-day Saint friends introduced him to missionaries for the deaf, he listened, not because he was interested in joining a different religion but because they conversed in sign language.

Later Eric began a personal struggle to find out the purpose of life. After much pondering and prayer, “I experienced an outpouring of marvelous light that enlightened my soul. Never in my life had I experienced the love, the light, and the power that the gospel brought.” He added, “When the gospel was preached to me in American Sign Language, it changed the course of my life.” He was later baptized.

President Bart Worthington stresses the importance of sign language missionaries. “Often, deaf members need an intermediary, an interpreter to teach them gospel truths in their very own language. Many of our members believe the gospel because those who have access to the written words believe and are able to convey that knowledge in sign language that is intelligible, clear, and at their level.”

In 1998, when full-time missionaries Taylor Hartley and Lee Sang Guk discovered that the deaf in Seoul, South Korea, did not know the signs for gospel terms, they made a teaching videotape. Elder Lee signed the discussions while Elder Hartley read them in Korean. The tape became a successful missionary tool and was used in both Seoul missions.

Listening to the Spirit

To all of God’s children, God proffers this great blessing: “Incline your ear, and come unto me: hear, and your soul shall live” (Isaiah 55:3). The deaf may not be able to hear with their physical ears, but the Spirit can convey what words alone cannot.

Maria Salve Duplito declares: “I firmly believe that no barrier—even loss of hearing—is too strong for the Spirit to overcome. After all, the Holy Ghost does not work through words but through feelings. True communication has to do with heartfelt feelings.” Richard Snow agrees. As a child, he could not hear speakers at Church meetings, but, he says, “I thought about Jesus, and the Spirit taught me things I couldn’t hear. I got my testimony that way.”

Many deaf members treasure the following scripture: “And in that day shall the deaf hear the words of the book, and the eyes of the blind shall see out of obscurity, and out of darkness” (Isaiah 29:18). Although their world is silent, deaf members work hard every day to be able to hear the things that matter most.

Deaf members who know American Sign Language (ASL) can access the Web site ASL.LDS.org for translations of First Presidency and Visiting Teaching Messages, general conference addresses, and other selected broadcasts. Church materials such as the Book of Mormon stories on DVD (item no. 54100010, U.S. $4.50) can be obtained in ASL at www.ldscatalog.com.

Ideas for Teaching the Deaf

  • Consider learning sign language. Ask family members of the deaf person for help. Your local college or community education program may offer sign language classes. The Church’s Dictionary of Sign Language Terms for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints may be helpful (video: 53158010, U.S. $6.00; book: 31121000, U.S. $8.50).

  • Deaf people tend to be visual learners. Write on the blackboard and use visual aids such as pictures, maps, handouts, overhead transparencies, and PowerPoint presentations. If you pass out quotations for individuals to read aloud to the class, make an additional copy so the deaf person can see what is being read.

  • If the class is small, seat everyone in a semicircle so that the deaf person can see everyone’s face. In a larger class, ask those who answer questions to stand, enabling the deaf person to see their faces and lip read. Avoid talking when facing the blackboard.

  • If teaching children, explain to your class why the deaf child doesn’t respond when they speak and why he or she may not be able to talk. You might teach the class some signs so that they can talk with the deaf child.

  • Do not give deaf children such special treatment that they stand out as different. Make sure to involve them in normal class activities such as praying and holding pictures.

Including Those Who Are Deaf

  • Remember that some deaf people can hear a few sounds with hearing aids. Although most can read lips, only 25 percent of spoken language can be accurately discerned through lip reading. To facilitate lip reading, face the person directly and pronounce your words distinctly but without overenunciating. If the person misunderstands, rephrase your statement. For example, if they don’t understand “How are you today?” ask, “Are you having a good day?”

  • You can help deaf people feel welcome at church by making a sincere effort to be friendly. Give a welcoming wave, smile, or where appropriate, a hug. Help them feel that they belong by showing interest in their lives and taking time to talk with them and listen to them.

  • Make an effort to communicate. Use simple gestures. Carry a pencil and paper to write notes or draw pictures. Be patient; do not give up trying to communicate because it takes too much time. Remember, they are needing to show patience with you as well. If talking through an interpreter, look at and address the deaf person directly. Do not speak to the interpreter, saying, “Tell her … ”

  • Consider learning sign language. It is best to learn from another person, but if that is not possible, use videos. As a last resort, try books.

[photos] Photographs by Robert Casey, except as noted

[photo] Above: Deaf Church members in India participate in a Sunday School class. There are currently 25 deaf wards and branches throughout the world.

[photos] Above: Approximately 30 to 40 sign language missionaries enter the MTC in Provo, Utah, each year. Below: Members of deaf wards are given opportunities to teach the gospel to one another.

[photo] Despite communication challenges, Church members who are deaf are not hindered by their ability to communicate spiritually.

[photos] Deaf Church members can participate in singing hymns and in class instruction through sign language.

[photo] Below: The Huddersfield England Stake hosted a deaf conference in May for members throughout the UK and Ireland, featuring a fireside, workshops, and games.

Show References


  1.   1.

    “Unity in Diversity,” Ensign, Mar. 1991, 9.