Last week at the Catholic pastoral center in the Sam Phran District, Thailand hosted the first international Asian Conference for deaf Catholics titled “Ephatha" which means be opened. The 7-day conference which was attended by 100 participants from 15 countries reflected on the pastoral challenges to accommodating the deaf into liturgical and social life, both in Church and in society.
The scope of the conference was to offer the Church an opportunity to emphasize the contribution made by deaf persons in the different areas of the Church’s apostolate and also to give full recognition to the importance of their work.
According to the chaplain of the Deaf Catholic Association in Thailand, Fr. Peter Teerapong Kanpigul
“The aim is to promote better understanding and network with dioceses, interpreters, and sign languages, which vary from country to country, so as to foster and strengthen the apostolate of a participatory Asian Church to bolster the new evangelization"
He noted that “There is a need for sensitization to cultural integration and the complex nature of sign languages, because the deaf become partly separated from the mainstream, participatory society."
Fr. Kanpigul emphasized that the deaf “don’t need our sympathy; rather they need to feel accepted. The recognition of their space and rights offers them a chance to be welcomed as one flock, which invites us to magnify and broaden our outlook, dialoguing about the complex challenges of hearing disabilities."
Amongst the keynote speakers was Fr. Cyril Axelrod, a deaf-blind Redemptorist priest who is the world’s only deaf and blind priest.He has been active in pastoral ministry with deaf and blind people in many parts of the world for many years. He expressed hope that Pope Francis will further examine the challenges facing deaf persons, and help to open up vocations to the priesthood and religious life for those with hearing and other disabilities.
Archbishop Zygmunt Zimowski, President of the Pontifical Council for Health Care Workers, said there are more than 278 million deaf people in the world, and at least 1.3 million of them are Catholic. “That is a lot and the church must act,” the Archbishop said. Without adequately prepared priests and other pastoral workers and trained sign language interpreters, he said, the church is making it difficult, if not impossible, for its deaf members to participate fully in parish life and liturgies, to learn about their faith and to contribute to the life of the church.
Father Charles Dittmeier, director of the deaf development program in Cambodia, told CNA, “deafness is an invisible disability, and so no one sees it and no one understands it, and most people don’t have experience with deaf people, or how the disability affects them and how to deal with it. Deaf persons are everywhere, they are standing in line behind us in supermarkets, but nobody knows until you start using sign language."
“Deaf people learn through their eyes, not through their ears, so there is a need to train catechists and teachers to instruct visually," Fr. Dittmeier, a priest from the United States who has worked with the Maryknoll missionaries for more than 30 years in India, China, and Cambodia, reflected. He has been involved in developing communications methods for the deaf, and is competent in more than six sign languages.
He acknowledged that the Church has provided many good schools for the deaf, while hoping that more will be done in the future.
“It’s fundamental that dioceses recognize the deaf people out there, and seek ways to integrate them," he said.
In many countries today, the deaf suffer segregation and marginalization due to cultural prohibition, language, and ignorance, to the point of assuming that a hearing disability is a punishment for sin. People misconceive the idea that disabilities of any form could be as a result of sickness even from childbirth.