Pastoral Activities for the Deaf in Asia: A Look Back and A Look at the Future

Resources »EAPR »East Asian Pastoral Review 1995 »Pastoral Activities For The Deaf In Asia A Look Back And A Look At The Future

V.K. George, S.G.



How can they call to Him for help, if they have not believed?  And how can they believe if they have not heard the message?  And how can they hear if the message is not proclaimed?  And how can the message be proclaimed if the messengers are not sent out?  As the Scripture says, "the foot step of those who bring the good news is a welcome sound" (Rom. 10: 14-15).

Down through the centuries, education was one of the important modes of the Churches to teach and spread the Gospel message.  Besides the other educational endeavours , schools, colleges and universities were established and administered by the Church with the primary aim of spreading the christian message and imparting the Gospel values.

The term special education refers to a variety of educational provisions for individuals who have exceptional learning needs.  A survey of the origin of the special education services in the different countries of the world shows that in nearly all the countries, the educational, rehabilitational and other related services for persons with disabilities were begun by Christian missionaries typically from the Catholic faith.  This is more true with the developing countries that were under the colonial rule.  These acts were in answer to the Master's call " Go and preach the good news to all creatures". It was years later, that the involvement of governmental and non-governmental agencies became prominent.

The pioneers in the education of the persons with hearing impairment were Catholic priests.  The French priest  AbbŽ Charles Michel de l'EpŽe (1712 - 1789) is regarded as the "father" of the education of the deaf.  The first school for the deaf in the world (1755) in Paris was founded by him.  It was he who developed and advocated the use of sign language in teaching the deaf, and published a dictionary of sign language.  Another person in the field of the education of the deaf was St. Francis de Sales.  He took the initiative to teach deaf children and is venerated as the patron saint of the deaf.  These pioneers changed society's views of deaf children as uneducable and retarded.  Presently, the pursuit of academic excellence and the professionalization of services for those hearing impairment has relegated to the background the original aim of the Church in establishing the schools for the deaf, viz. that of imparting Christian faith and the Gospel message.  The little initiative in this line taken by some institutions for the deaf tend to stop within their four walls and nothing beyond.



The Catholic Church since the time of St. Augustine has taken the initiative to impart education to the deaf.  The Church authorities has been in the forefront in provinding technical as well as educational leadership in the education and the rehabilitation of the people with hearing impairment.  In November 1992, the Pontifical Council for Pastoral Assistance to Health Care Workers had as its theme, 'Disabled Persons in Society' and the Pope in his opening address to the assembly said,

It is necessary to act in such a way that people with disabilities can feel welcomed into the civil community by full right, being afforded the effective opportunity to play an active role in the family, society, and the church.  Discretionary assistance, then, entrusted to the generosity of some, is not enough: it is necessary for responsible involvement at different levels by all members of the community.

As for the pastoral activities for those with hearing impairment, great strides have been made in the West and these activities have been streamlined and made systematic.  The church in the East is still striving to catch up with the educational and rehabilitation work for the deaf.  Practically nothing systematic is done in this area barring a few individual initiatives.

Concepts and Definitions

The term "deaf" has a wide spectrum of meaning, from the mild type of deafness to the profound hearing loss occuring from birth itself.  Here in our discussion, the focus is on persons who are pre-lingually deaf and having profound hearing loss hindering them from effecting meaningful and substantial auditory contact with the environment and other people.  The deaf are:

Persons in whom the onset of deafness occured before one year and six months of age who, with the best auditory training and the best hearing aid available, have to rely mainly on lip reading, sign  language or other form of communications and whose hearing loss is above 90dB.

It is this group of deaf people who are the target of our consideration.

Prelingually deaf are those people whose hearing loss occurred before acquiring speech and language, i.e. before 1 to 3  years- the critical age of language development.

Post lingually deaf are those people whose hearing loss occurred after the acquiring speech and language. This group include  deafened Adults and the hard of hearing people who are partially deaf.

The needs and pastoral approaches to these two groups of deaf people are totally different.  The post-lingually deaf, the deafened adults and the hard of hearing are able to mainstream into their local parish and are easily integrated into their parish community with some assistance.  But the pre-lingually deaf have great difficulty in " keeping up" with the Christian community  of their parish and to feel a part of it.  They need to gather together separately and need special assistance from a specially trained person.

The need for a shift in paradigm

In olden times the charitable and 'sacred model' was operant where the idea of our services was to do something for the deaf and the other handicapped.  The categorical term used during the early years was 'handicapped', which is thought to be of British origin, describing the prevalent begging gesture with the hand to cap, the receptacle for the blessings sought. The point of view was the normal and the able bodied doing something for the disabled.

Then came the pathological model.  The term deaf was replaced by 'hearing impaired'. It was better than the charitable model.  The paternalistic attitude still continued. The time has come for us to shift from a pathological point of view to a more humanistic one towards the deaf people. The pathological  perspective refers to a medical view of deafness: deaf people are pri-marily viewed as having a set of 'broken' ears (impaired) that need to be surgically or medically 'repaired'.  Deaf people are looked upon as a group of people who are having poorly developed speech or faulty language.   We just look at the deaf person's broken ears forgetting that the deaf person is more than his/her ears or his/her verbal capacity.  We have to go beyond the impaired ears of the deaf person.  These days educators, psychologists, and linguists are shifting to a humanistic point of view of looking at the whole person and not just his or her faulty language or impaired ears.

This humanistic view is very essential for persons who work with the deaf specially in the area of pastoral care.  We have to change our attitude from paternalism to one of partnership.  This represents a change, away from doing things for the deaf people to doing things with the deaf people.  Here it may be good to recall the pastoral letter of the US Bishops on handicapped persons.

"when we think of handicapped people in  relation to ministry, we tend automatically to think of doing something for them.  We do not reflect that they can do something for us and with us".

Exclusion of those persons with disabilities from church activities and church ministries in most cases are not intentional, but it occurs because people are either unaware of the needs and their means to meet these needs. It is our job to enthusiastically take a role in initiating the inclusion of children and adults with disabilities, and their families into the mainstream of the local church.

There are many implications for pastors and other church workers regarding those families whose children with disabilities are living at home, hidden from the  mainstream of the parish. The challenge of the church is to locate these families, welcome them into the congregation and then enable them to participate in the life of the church.  It is said that a child with a handicap makes a handicapped family.  The disability not only affects the child but also the whole family.  So it becomes imperative that the catholics of a parish under the initiative and leadership of the pastor goes in search of those persons who are most in need of  pastoral care.

Like their handicap, the deaf people are hidden.  They are not visible in a crowd or stand out as the blind or those with orthopedic handicap do, except when they begin to communicate.  We should not forget the fact that they are not only equal in all respects but normal in all aspects, just like any other member of the community. The difference is that they don't hear.  There is still the need to bring them into the mainstream of our parish community and address their special needs.


The understanding  of faith which needs considerable amount of abstract  thinking and linguistic skills, is rarely achieved by the profoundly deaf. Deafness is not merely the loss of a sense or faculty but is much more profound with the major impact seen in defective language and its comprehension.  Rev. Anthony Russo who did a four-year study on the effects of deafness on the emotional, spiritual and religious aspects of a deaf person, has given this 'inside view' of a deaf adolescent:

It is an over simplification to say that the deaf person has grave difficulty in abstracting,  since the act of abstraction is an operation belonging to the nature of the intellect.  It is precisely in the realm of highest degree of  abstraction that the deaf persons's difficulty is most acute.   This difficulty is due to the nature of the handicap and not due to extrinsic factors such as  retarded vocabulary development and faulty teaching.

The faith aspects and the teaching of the church calls for the higher  levels of understanding and abstraction which the deaf finds very difficult and constitutes a special challenge for the teacher and the pastoral worker.  The deaf can learn some concepts by analogy.  Attention should be devoted to this in the catechetical and liturgical process.

The language of the Deaf

The language of the Deaf is the sign language. Deaf persons feel a strong identification with the sign language as their language. It is part of their cultural background. The sign language is no longer considered gestural language.  It is given the status of a unique, primitive, living, and rich language with its own syntax and morphology, used by a cultural group and a vibrant community.  In spite of the onslaught of oralism and the suppression of the sign language by the conflicting philosophies and ideologies of the  method of education of the deaf, it has survived and is flourishing. It has gained a new status and this has given the deaf a new identity and dignity.  A mastery of sign language with its subtle nuances and graceful fluency is a must for any person  wishing to do meaningful pastoral service for the deaf.  Voltaire says that the ear is the road to the heart.  Sign Language is more visual but it is taken to the heart by the deaf.  The moment the Deaf know that we are able to converse in their language, the sign language,we will be able to win their respect and confidence.

Deaf Culture

A genuine pastoral worker for the deaf needs an understanding of the deaf culture for him to achieve a definite impact in his work.

Culture is a set of learned behaviors of a group of people who have their own language, values, rules of behavior and traditions.  A person can be born into a culture or grow up in a culture and become uncultured.  The Deaf community is a group of people living together, share common  goals, live in a particular location, and carry out certain responsibilities to each other.  Their beliefs and actions may be influenced by their work and the other people with whom they come into contact but they still try to maintain their identity and habits.  The deaf culture, like the handicap of hearing loss, is more closed and less obvious to the other people.  Members of the deaf culture behave as other deaf people do, use the language of the deaf people (the sign language), and share the beliefs of other deaf towards themselves.

The culture of Deaf people, specially in the Asian countries, has not been studied in depth or paid much attention to.  One reason is that, until recently, it was rare to describe the deaf people as having a culture, although it has often been remarked that deaf people seek out other deaf people for companionship and that they do possess a unique language.  Description of deaf people have focused on details of their deficiency and not on the regular aspects of their lives: that they, like the other human beings, are members of communities and they participate in cultural growth and enrichment.

Identifying  the  Deaf  Culture and Nurturing it

The basic ingredients of a culture are a large population, established patterns of cultural transmissions and a common language.  The pastoral and liturgical activities for the deaf should encourage the deaf culture and enrich it.

The primary identifying  characteristics of the deaf culture is its language -the sign language.  Sign language has developed through the generations as part of an equally rich cultural heritage of the Deaf people.  For the deaf people their sign language is as old as their history.  The Deaf culture like any other culture in the traditional sense of the term, is historically created and actively transmitted across generations.

Social Relations

As with any minority group there is a strong emphasis on social and family ties among the deaf.  It has been observed that the deaf persons often remain in groups, talking late, long after the party has ended.  For example, every Sunday the adult deaf of Metro Manila with their families meet either in De La Salle University, Taft Avenue, Manila or at the Little Mission for the Deaf, Las Piñas, Metro Manila.  They have Mass in sign language which is followed by meals and socialization.  The deaf stay on as late as 5:00 to 6:00 p.m. even though they come early in the morning by about 9.00 a.m. For them this is an opportunity to meet the other deaf, share news, socialize, and simply enjoy the company of other like minded deaf people.  They feel that they gain support and trusting companionship, from the others who share their cultural beliefs and attitudes.

To teach as Jesus taught

It is in the area of teaching the eternal truth to the deaf that the Master's method comes to serve as the best model. The catechists and pastoral workers of the deaf need to teach the deaf as Jesus taught.

Parables, daily life examples, stories, illustrations and experiences were the subjects of His teachings. A study of the spirituality of deaf people conducted recently in the US has come out with the finding that elements common to the life experience of deaf persons have a tremendous impact on the faith development of a deaf individual and has spiritual and pastoral implications.

Jesus in His teachings appealed to the concrete and tangible things, persons and events, and from this He moved on to the spiritual.  In His time the audio visual aids and the mass media as we have today were not even conceptualized.  Yet he used sensory aids like the lilies of the field and the birds of the air, to teach the loving care of the Father, the well water of Samaria to speak of the living water, from the daily bread to the living bread of the Heaven, the vine and the branches, the sheep and  the shepherd, the father and the son, the lamp and the bushel are all daily life imageries He used to teach profound truths. It is the same simple method that a pastoral worker of the deaf need to follow.  Jesus knew His audience, their  language, and the level of their understanding.  He did not speak Greek or Latin, the language of the "educated" or "civilized" of the time.  He spoke the common language "Aramaic" the language of the poor and the common people of His time.  If our God and  Master has shown this way, is it not for us to follow His path in our pastoral efforts for the deaf? This brings us to the discussion about the language of the Deaf-the Sign Language.


Initially the person beginning apostolic work with the deaf may feel that he/she can completely overcome the challenge of deafness by acquiring fluency in sign language.  Very little time passes, however before the newcomer becomes aware that he/she faces a challenge more than the learning of a few signs, the challenge of the psychological effects of deafness on communication, speech and language but also on the cognitive development, psychic emotions and the whole person himself.  Later the more enlightened pastoral worker comes to the awareness that the deeper issue of language and cognitive deficiency is what needs most attention.  In short the problem of deaf persons is not only a speech problem, which is obvious, but it is the lack of language that is the real handicap.  The following are some of the areas where the deaf find particular difficulty in participating in the liturgical life of the Church.

  1. Meaningful participation in the liturgy - because of the symbolism and abstract ideas presented though the liturgical symbols.
  2. Sharing and being a part of the Parish community - because the problem of communication and establishing meaningful relationships, the deaf people tend to be excluded from the parish community by virtue of their handicap.
  3. Satisfying their sacramental needs - because of the lack of trained ministers.  The priest of the parish, however good and understating he may be, fail to adequately satisfy the sacramental needs of the deaf because of the problem of verbal communication.

Present Scenario:  Pastoral activities of the Deaf in Asia

Some of the best schools for the deaf in India, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Japan, Korea, Indonesia and other Asian countries are managed and administered by religious congregations.  Excellent work in the field of education of those with hearing impairment have been done by the various religious congregations over the years in these countries.  The area of pastoral work for the Deaf is often ovelooked.  Following are some of the problems a pastoral worker of the deaf face in the Asian countries.

  1. In all these Asian countries (except the Philippines) the Christian population form a negligible minority and the presence of the catholic deaf is almost not recognized.  They         have no special rights of their own in spite of their handicap. They are scattered across vast territories and even proper statistics are not available.
  2. Contrary to popular belief, sign language is not uniform and not the international language of the deaf. There is no common  sign language in all these countries.  Unfortunately         sign language of the deaf in these counties is still under developed and takes a multiplicity of forms and shapes and varies from country to country in Asia.
  3. There is rarely any awareness, initiative or response to the needs of the catholic deaf in terms of training personnel, liturgies in sign language, training programs and research      into the needs of the catholic deaf in developing a Christian catechism for the deaf in these counties.
  4. Many of the catholic children attend schools which are run by the State or aided by the Government which are non-Christian and seldom is there any provision made for the    catholic deaf children  to develop their faith in these settings. In some cases it is even forbidden to teach catechism openly in these schools.

Guidelines and Plan of Ation for the Pastoral Care for the Deaf in Asia.

The number of priests and religious or lay persons trained to minister to these needs of the catholic deaf in these Asian countries are negligible if not nil.  There is little knowledge or information regarding the religious education and catechetical services for the catholic deaf in most of our South East Asian countries.  Countries like India that have a deaf population almost equal the total population of some Asian countries, do not have even a single trained priest to cater to their pastoral and sacramental needs.

Even countries like the Philippines that has good number of priests and personnel in the pastoral work with the deaf are in need of more people and trained persons to take the Word to the remote regions and far flung corners of the country where the deaf are almost hidden from the community and the local parish.

The Asia Pacific meeting of the pastoral workers for the deaf was organized in Pattaya, Bangkok in February 1995.  There were representatives  from eleven Asian countries.  Below are some of the suggestions and future plan of action that were proposed during the meeting.

  • Formation of an Asian Center to coordinate the pastoral activities of the deaf in Asia.
  • Selection and training of candidates, both lay and religious persons, to minister to the pastoral and catechetical needs of the deaf, and train deaf ministers themselves for the deaf.

The Philippines has shown the way and given the right direction and leadership in the training of catechists for the Deaf.  The office of the catholic miniatry to the deaf people, that was started eight years ago under the leadership of Sr. Rita M. Pickhinke has drawn up programs and trained nine adult deaf to work as catechists. These deaf catechists teach religion in various schools and institutions for the deaf in the city of Metro Manila.  It is encouraging to note that the office of the Catholic ministry for the deaf not only trains deaf persons to be catechists in the various schools and institutions for the deaf in Metro Manila but also has plans to develop audio visual aids, and is currently working on a religious education curriculum for the deaf here in the Philippines.  The following are some of the areas in the pastoral work for the deaf that immediate attention.

  • Developing comprehensive catechetical and liturgical publications and other material for the effective imparting of the religious education of the deaf in Asia.
  • Preparation of a country to country statistics of the catholic population, the service available and the people who minister to the deaf in these countries.
  • Development of liturgy adapted to the special needs of the deaf with more visual symbols and signs and simplified with less verbal content so that deaf people can fully and meaningfully participate.
  • Recruit volunteer catechists who will locate and establish close links with all the families of the deaf children on a one to one basis at a time.

The liturgy and the faith explanation of the church are generally considered too rational, verbal, abstract and intellectual for a pre-lingually deaf person with limited speech, and language.  Our task is to make it more visual, less verbal, more active and participatory.  Signs, gestures, dramas and the visual arts are the vernacular of deaf people.  They are also called the "eye people" and the "eye centered".  Hence it is but natural that we use these media to teach the faith and celebrate the liturgy for the deaf.  The liturgical  variations  that  are  possible  within  the  framework  of present liturgical legislation need to be explored to make it more meaningful for the deaf.

It has been found that in United States and the European countries have made suitable changes and adaptations for the various liturgical celebrations for the deaf, the results, in terms of meaningful and active participation in the liturgy by the deaf, have been outstanding.  Following the above given lines, we in Asia can achieve better results.


Our care for the deaf should not be confined to the four walls of our parishes and institutions but should permeate through the total fabric of our parish community.  We read in the gospels that every time Christ touched those with disabilities and healed those with  illness,he was setting  a model to be followed in our pastoral care for the handicapped. Justice and love will triumph only when the segregating walls are knocked down, the communication barriers removed, our churches and altars become more accessible to the handicapped, and the Good News is heared by all including the deaf.  In accordance with the call of the Holy Father and the call of the U.S. Catholic Bishops, it is not enough merely to affirm the rights of the Deaf, but we as the people of God must actively work to realize these rights in the fabric of our parish community, and society.



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Published Proceedings

Abstract, 4th Asia-Pacific Congress on Deafness, Nov. 28-Dec. 02., 1994  Manila, 1994.

Agenda for Action: Asian and Pacific Decade of the Disabled Persons, 1993 - 2003.Manila: National Council for the Welfare of Disabled Persons, 1993.

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National Conference on Catholic Bishops. To Teach as Jesus Did. Washington:US Catholic Bishops Conference, 1964.

The Bishops Committee for the Pastoral Care of the Deaf. The Deaf Hear.  Manchester:  Henesey House, 1984.

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