CathBlog - Having a go at sign language

BY PATRICIA MOWBRAY

What an impressive man! Fr Cyril Axelrod is visiting Australia and last week, thanks to the assistance of The Ephpheta Centre, he visited Canberra. 

Fr Cyril was born in South Africa. He is a Redemptorist currently living in the UK. He was born profoundly deaf and raised in a devout Jewish family. As a young man, he converted to Catholicism and became a priest. 

During his time in the seminary, Fr Cyril began to lose his sight and was later diagnosed with Ushers syndrome, which causes congenital deafness and late onset blindness. 

Fr Cyril is the only Deaf and blind priest in the world. He sees his disability as a blessing, and it certainly hasn’t stopped him from sharing the Good News of Jesus, and being a beacon and voice for people with disability around the world.

During the presentation in Canberra, he shared with us that he is gently persistent and very stubborn when it comes to upholding the laws of God. He went on to explain that God sees every person as equal, and our laws and practices should reflect that equality and dignity. He encouraged us, as Christians, to fight for and protect the rights and dignity of all people; especially people with disability and their families. 

He believes that this is what God asks of us – to educate people gently and to push for the rights and dignity of all people with disability, so that every person is treated with dignity, respect and equality.

Fr Cyril instructed us to go gently. Don’t judge; do listen carefully to what people with disability are saying. 

He challenged us to listen to what people with disability are saying in our local communities and in our parishes. He emphasised the importance and urgency of listening to our indigenous brothers and sisters living with disability and those families living with disability seeking refuge in our country.

This made me think about how effective I am in communicating with others. As parishes and individual members of the Body of Christ, are we aware of the different ways of communicating with people? Do we know how to effectively communicate with people with disability and their families? Are we familiar with how to guide a blind person into our churches or faith communities? 

Can we use simple Auslan (Australian Sign Language) to greet and welcome people within the Deaf community? Do we maintain and actually switch on our hearing loops? 

Do we know how to offer our friendship to someone with Autism? Are we familiar with the etiquette of speaking to someone who uses a wheelchair for mobility? Most importantly, do we offer opportunities for people with disability to share their opinions and ideas about their faith and participation in the life of our Church?

At the moment, I am studying Auslan, as our eldest son is going deaf and we need another way to communicate with him. I had the great privilege of using some of those skills to communicate with Fr Cyril and members of the Catholic Deaf community. 

I am very new to the language and often stumble or form wrong signs. Fr Cyril uses a hand over hand form of sign language. I am not at all proficient in that form of sign language, but I did have sufficient skills to learn to fingerspell on the palm of his hand.

I asked if I could have a go and speak with Fr Cyril. I spelt out each word individually on the palm of his hand and he waited patiently for my message.

After I had finished spelling out each word, he would sign it back to me so I knew he had understood. Fr Cyril often corrected my finger shapes on his palm, but even though I stumbled through my efforts to communicate some basic words to him, he patiently waited for me, concentrated intensely and showed me the correct way of forming a particular word.

It was an amazing and humbling experience, and I cannot adequately explain the joy I felt when he understood what I was trying to tell him. His response to my efforts was a huge hug and congratulations for having a go! I felt like a pre-school child writing my name correctly for the first time – very proud of myself!

That experience of having a go, combined with a patient teacher, seems to be the secret to offering and organising full participation for people with disability and their families. Fr Cyril’s patience and instruction has encouraged me to go out and ask people with disability and to listen carefully about how they want to participate in the life of our Church.

It will mean I will have to learn some more new disability languages and have a go. I will need people with disability to correct me and be patient with my efforts as I learn new skills and try to understand the culture around each different form of disability.

But, what a great way to learn and an exciting way to form new relationships. After all, as Fr Cyril told us, "if you don’t know; you don’t know.” What a great insight and challenge for the Year of Grace. It is certainly one way of seeing the face of Jesus in everyone we meet.

Patricia MowbrayPatricia Mowbray is disability consultant to the Bishops Commission for Pastoral Life

Disclaimer: CathBlog is an extension of CathNews story feedback. It is intended to promote discussion and debate among the subscribers to CathNews and the readers of the website. The opinions expressed in CathBlog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the members of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference or of Church Resources.

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