If you have normal hearing, you probably take for granted the gift of sound. But if you are a guest at a wedding where someone is deaf you realize how much he or she is missing. From the ceremonial toasts at the pre-wedding reception to the ceremony and the post-wedding reception, people with a hearing loss are at a serious disadvantage. They also have difficulty with casual exchanges and personal introductions and may feel left out.
Nancy Rubin of Hartford attended a family wedding several years ago where the bride, groom and several family members were hearing impaired. She recalled that in place of applause, guests waved white linen napkins.
Liz Citron, clinician for the PACES (Positive Attitudes Concerning Education and Socialization) program at American School for the Deaf in West Hartford, was a guest at a church wedding where several guests were hearing impaired or deaf. At the ceremony a deaf interpreter translated key parts for the audience. The interpreter also was present for the toasts.
“Hiring an interpreter can get expensive,” she said, “so sometimes a friend of the family will do it.” The cost varies from state to state, but in Connecticut $40 to $50 an hour is a reasonable estimate.
Michael Thal of Los Angeles, Calif. began losing his hearing to a virus in 1993 at the age of 44. Six years later a second attack left him legally deaf in his left ear. Even with hearing aids, he has difficulty understanding voices and distinguishing sounds, especially in a noisy setting.
When Thal attended his older daughter’s destination wedding in Miami, Fla. recently, he had some help from close relatives. His niece and younger daughter, both of whom can sign, were sitting in the front row during the ceremony and he could see them as he stood under the wedding canopy.
“They signed a little bit about what was happening and I got the gist of what the rabbi was saying through them. No details, just main ideas,” he said. “From what they signed to me, apparently I wasn't missing much,” he added.
Despite this attempt at humor, he realized he was missing a lot. “I would have loved to have had a professional signing what was being said. I even know an interpreter who signs the Hebrew into ASL, which is really great.”
There were other times over the weekend when having an interpreter would have been helpful.
“At the rehearsal, I didn't understand the party planner,” Thal said. “She talked way too fast. However, my niece was there and she signed what I needed to know. That made it a lot easier for me to comprehend what was happening.”
After the rehearsal, there was an evening cocktail party on an outdoor patio. The lighting was dim and there was no sound system. When person after person stood up to toast the couple, neither the bride’s father nor his fiancé, who also is deaf, could comprehend what was being said.
“Some of the guests were sweet and brought us transcripts of their speeches,” he said.
People who are not hearing impaired are often unaware of the sense of alienation deafness causes.
“As to how I feel about missing what people say,” Thal said, “this is a daily occurrence. I feel disengaged. I feel lonely. I feel as if no one cares. When someone goes out of her way to explain, my eyes fill with tears and I just want to hug the person for their kindness.”
Thal had normal hearing until his mid 40s. In the years since he has lost his hearing, he has learned to cope.
“No one has ever hired a translator for me. However, for a brief time, the temple [in Los Angeles] I belong to had a translator. That was nice. If I could afford one, I'd go to the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf.”
At the American School for the Deaf in West Hartford, Janice Knauth, Coordinator of Sign Language and Interpreting Services, also is a certified interpreter.
“With advance notice it’s not difficult to get interpreters for weddings,” she said. She recommended contacting either a state or private agency for a referral, or you could contact her.
“I get a lot of phone calls and I refer them to interpreters I know,” she said.
In addition to the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID) (www.rid.org), other organizations Knauth recommended are Communication Services for the Deaf (www.c-s-d.org) and Sign Language Resources (http://signlanguageresourcesinc.com).
About two years ago, she was an interpreter at a wedding for the sister of the bride. “I did the rehearsal, the rehearsal dinner, the wedding and the reception,” she said. “They had me hanging around for a couple of days. It was fun.”
She hadn’t previously known the family, but they found her through word of mouth.
“People who are deaf or hard of hearing can fool people into thinking that they can hear more than they actually can,” Knauth said. “It’s an invisible disability.”
Joan Walden is a free-lance writer based in West Hartford.