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Sign of the times: Deaf ministry in church

PLAINFIELD, Ill. (Catholic Explorer) - The hands are one of the most fascinating parts of the human body. Flowing through the air during a conversation, a person’s hands can oftentimes say much more than words. There are even specialists who make their living out of reading body language, of which the hands play an integral part.

Lisa Egner, a sign language interpreter for the Diocese of Joliet, makes it her mission to use her hands to help the hearing impaired understand all the nuances of the Catholic Mass. The young woman sat down with the Catholic Explorer after Mass at St. Mary Immaculate Parish in Plainfield to talk about her ministry and its impact. Having signed in the diocese for over nine years, Egner said she could not exactly pin down the reason why she had chosen to become an interpreter. But the young woman said she credited God with helping her to make the right decision. “It’s just one of those things. I felt the draw to do this,” she added. Unlike many interpreters, who may have chosen such a career because a family member or friend was hearing impaired, Egner said she did not meet anyone from the deaf community until after she became an interpreter herself. For Egner, the process of becoming an interpreter took about two years and, in addition to becoming versed in the mechanics of sign language, the young woman said she also had to take classes in deaf culture and the linguistics of American Sign Language. “It is a language, so it does have its own grammar structure,” she added. When talking about deaf culture, Egner said the subject covers simple things, such as turning the lights on and off to get the attention of a roomful of hearing impaired people. “In a room of people who could hear, all you would have to say would be ‘Could I please have your attention,’ but that wouldn’t work with the hearing impaired,” she added. Sign language is a combination of general signs which can covey many ideas in just a few twists of the hands, as opposed to finger spelling which is letter-by-letter, said Egner. Examples of this type of interpreting include the signs for “thank you,” “goodbye” and “I love you.” “Learning American Sign Language is just like learning any foreign language. Some people are more adept at learning a foreign language like French or Spanish than others,” she added. For her part, Egner said learning sign language came easy to her from the beginning and now she enjoys sharing her gift with people around the diocese and learning from them in return. As an example, the young woman told the story of a Holy Thursday Mass at St. Mary Immaculate Parish in Plainfield that truly touched her heart several years ago. After the Mass, she said, the faith community went to another room for adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. As she signed a hymn for some of the hearing impaired parishioners, Egner said she noticed a group of children off to the side copying the sign language. “They were hearing and they were joining in.” With so many parishes forming their own deaf ministries, Egner said the hearing impaired are truly becoming active members of their faith communities, something that would not have been considered years ago. “Kids today are so much more accepting of people with disabilities,” she added. When she is not interpreting at Masses around the diocese, Egner said she works as a sign language interpreter at several local schools, helping hearing impaired children keep up with their daily class work. It’s there, she said, that she has witnessed the caring reception that hearing students have shown to their disabled classmates. “It’s amazing to me to see how they accept everyone,” she added. With television shows, such as “Blues Clues,” and “The Good Night Show” teaching sign language and featuring deaf cast members, Enger said more and more children are coming into contact with disabled people before they even start school. It fosters a strong sense of understanding and acceptance at an early age. In 1995, hearing impaired children watching the televised Miss America pageant saw one of their own receive the crown; Heather Whitestone, Miss Alabama, thrust the hearing impaired into the national spotlight when she took top honors. While she doesn’t consider herself a role model on a par with the former Miss America, Egner said she enjoys being a voice for the deaf of the diocese and for their hearing counterparts. “I think it’s wonderful that they are able see this and participate in it,” she added.

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This story was made available to Catholic Online by permission of the Catholic Explorer(www.catholicexplorer.com), official newspaper of the Diocese of Joliet, Ill.

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