COVID Presents Extra Challenges to Deaf Catholics
By Amanda Hudson, News Editor
September 24, 2020
Deacon David Zarembski’s wife, Elizabeth, is having a harder than usual time with communication during the pandemic.
Hard of hearing, she reads lips and, of course, store clerks and restaurant workers are all wearing masks. When she asks them to remove their masks so she can understand them, he says, “They just keep talking.”
Masks with clear panels over the mouth are not a perfect fix because language for hard-of-hearing and deaf people is communicated using not just the mouth but all of the face along with arms and hands. Focusing just on the mouth can be a distraction. 
Glare from lights and the lack of breathability also are downsides to such masks.
Msgr. Glenn Nelson, director of the Deaf Apostolate for the Rockford Diocese, says masks of any kind “really cut off half of the communication. It’s more than just lip reading.”
Msgr. Nelson has long served the diocesan deaf community by providing signed Masses around the diocese, monthly Masses at each of seven locations. All of those in-person, signed Masses stopped with COVID-19 restrictions.
Since those restrictions went into effect last March, Msgr. Nelson has been providing interpreted Masses live-streamed on the diocesan deaf apostolate Facebook page each week. 
The Zarembskis of Rockford and many others are watching those live-streams. 
Deacon Zarembski could watch the priest’s sign language from the side as he served at the altar. Now he is seeing the Mass anew from in front of the altar, virtually, and says he is picking up more of the intricacies of the special signs used at Mass. 
That close-up focus on the priest for those Masses is deliberate, Msgr. Nelson says. Part of that is technical. 
“It’s just me and my phone,” he says of his live-streamed Mass, filmed in the Chapel of the Immaculate Conception at the Diocesan Administration Center.
Some signed Masses online, perhaps filmed by a hearing person, may include sights of the church to provide some ambiance, he says. But moving the view away from the signing priest or making him smaller disrupts the visual communication and connection.
“I just bring (the view) right to me,” Msgr. Nelson says, adding that he uses the crucifix on the wall behind him in his communications about Jesus. 
Although interpreters make a Mass accessible to the deaf, looking at the interpreter means they must look away from the altar. 
Msgr. Nelson adds, “Part of the ministry is that I’m focusing on deaf culture ... speaking to a deaf heart.
“I’m always touched when I get a comment saying something like, ‘That is so clear! Wow! I get it!’ ”
Members of his online Mass community often respond to points in his homily with “Likes” and comments. Viewers also can add petitions during the intercessory prayers.
The comments, he says, shows that among the 1,000 or so people who tune in each week are those from Ecuador, the Philippines, Malaysia, Kenya and Korea, who may type things like, “Greetings from Kenya!” before the Mass begins.
Pre-COVID, when Msgr. Nelson’s in-person signed Mass was not provided in a particular location, interpreters filled in. 
Now, he says, the entire diocesan deaf community, is “interacting every week, virtually.”  
Still, “It is difficult not to be with people,” he says. “It’s been a bit of a trade-off.”
He has encouraged members of the diocesan deaf Catholic community to try to make arrangements with their parishes to be able to receive Communion since obviously the live-stream Mass can’t provide the Eucharist to its viewers.
Msgr. Nelson has not quite settled on a procedure once the pandemic subsides.
To film an in-person signed Mass will be difficult to impossible, he says. “Now it’s just me in the frame” but an in-person Mass with the deaf community means he would be moving around. 
Having someone else film it would block the view for some in the pews, and some of his Mass locations simply are not big enough even with a small congregation.
“I might schedule one weekend each month for the live-stream,” he speculates. That would treat the online deaf community as an eighth location. 
Some in that online community have already been saying, “Please don’t leave me” as they anticipate the future.
“It’s hard for us not to be together,” Msgr. Nelson says of the deaf Catholic community, but the online Mass “has brought others in.
“We’ll figure out a way to bring them with us.”
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