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For deaf Catholics, much during the COVID-19 pandemic is lost in translation

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It’s Sunday morning at Holy Spirit Church in Annandale, and Mary “Provie” Rydstrom comes flying down the aisle with a metal music stand in one hand and a big red satchel in the other, just in time to interpret the 10:30 a.m. Mass in American Sign Language. 

A petite woman with flowing gray hair, Rydstrom, program coordinator for the diocesan Ministry for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, has just come from interpreting the 9 a.m. Mass at Good Shepherd Church in Alexandria. She barely has time to catch her breath as she stands in front of the altar pulling song sheets out of her bag and adjusting a mask with a large clear plastic window that wraps around her face, so her mouth can be seen from both front and sides.

“You can spell words, but if it’s a new word and people don’t understand what it means, communication is difficult.” — Nancy Emanuel, coordinator for diocesan special needs ministries

The safety measures necessitated by the coronavirus pandemic haven’t been easy for anyone, but “for an interpreter, it is a challenge,” said Rydstrom, whose hands flutter like birds with ASL gestures when she speaks, even to hearing people. Some deaf people read lips, “but with a mask, lip-reading is an impossibility,” she added.

She researched the best clear masks online, but this wraparound style is still not perfect; when she moves, which she does constantly, light reflects off the plastic, creating glare. Rydstrom learned ASL decades ago because her son, now in his 40s, is deaf.

Communication is a primary concern for deaf and other special needs people during the pandemic, said Nancy Emanuel, coordinator for diocesan special needs ministries. “Access to information is a real critical need, but even the vocabulary is different now, with so many new health words going on,” she said.

Interpreters may have difficulty conveying new terms like COVID-19, social distancing and self-quarantining. “You can spell words, but if it’s a new word and people don’t understand what it means, communication is difficult.” ASL has added a new sign for COVID-19, Emanuel said — a fist hitting an open palm with fingers spread, simulating the now-common image of what the virus looks like under a microscope, a ball with a spiked crown.

Rydstrom said the pandemic has been difficult for the deaf community, and while some started coming back to church as soon as public Masses resumed, many others haven’t returned yet because they have health conditions that put them at higher risk of complications from the virus. 

But those in attendance this Sunday greet Rydstrom warmly after Mass and say they appreciate her service. Michael and Ahn Nguyen come to Mass with their two sons; the older son, Anthony, 17, is deaf and attends Rydstrom’s ASL religious education class, now on hold. 

Scholastica Ambrosini and her daughter Teresa, who is deaf, come from Centreville to be with the community; Scholastica, in her 80s, says they don’t use computers much, and except for Mass, haven’t socialized except with family since the pandemic began. 

Rydstrom has been sending out emails to about 35 people, but she knows it’s not the same as in-person communication, especially for those who use ASL, a physically expressive language where facial expressions and body language provide a lot of nuance. “Deaf people miss seeing each other, and miss receiving holy Communion,” she said. 

But she focuses on the positives and silver linings, such as the wider availability now of interpreted and live-captioned online Masses from all over the world. A few dioceses even have priests who know ASL and use it in their Masses. Arlington has never been so blessed, she said. “Many seminarians study Spanish, but few have learned to sign; to have a priest who wants to dedicate himself to that … we have been praying for a priest who is inclined that way.”

Rydstrom explained that “deaf and hard of hearing” is the preferred terminology in the deaf community, rather than “hearing-impaired.” Led by activists at Gallaudet University in Washington and elsewhere, many deaf people today see deafness not as a disability but as a distinct culture, with its own complete languages, which communicate ideas in broader strokes than written languages. In addition to ASL, there are more than 135 different sign languages around the world, including British Sign Language and Australian Sign Language.  

The focus of the diocesan Special Needs Ministry is mostly on providing religious education, because “everybody wants equity for their kids and wants them to be connected with Jesus,” Emanuel said. But in a nod to the separate needs of the deaf community, Rydstrom interprets at several Masses and about 10 other ASL interpreters are contracted by parishes on an hourly basis.

Rydstrom sees the challenges of the pandemic as an “adventure” and a “learning process,” with opportunities for observation and reflection. “Our Lord challenges us to learn,” she said. “Only when you are missing something do you observe its value.” 

Find out more

For a full list of interpreted Masses around the diocese, visit the Ministry for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing website at arlingtondiocese.org/catechetical-resources/ministry-for-the-deaf-and-hard-of-hearing.




© Arlington Catholic Herald 2020