A Seat at the Table: Donna Penman

Thursday, March 11th, 2021

March is Disability Awareness Month. Suzanne Erb gives her story and tips on welcoming more people into church.

March is National Disability Awareness Month. Members of the diocesan committee, People for Disabilities, will be sharing their story and advice with you to welcome all people into church.

Hello, I am Donna Penman and a long time Episcopalian. I attended Trinity Episcopal Church, Pottsville and when I moved to Norristown I joined All Saints' Episcopal Church.

As a young adult it was discovered that I had a hearing loss and I was told that in time I would go deaf and there was nothing that they could do. So after I finally got over my denial, I tried all kinds of hearing aids, but they did not help much due to the type of loss I had. I then decided I better learn American Sign Language so I went to school for several years but never became proficient. Finally I learned of something new, cochlear implants. I was implanted in 2000 in my left ear and then in 2008, I was able to also get implanted in my right ear. Now I am only totally deaf when they are not on. The rest of the time I am hearing impaired.

At All Saints' there are others that have a hearing loss, some that admit it and others that don't. As our church population ages there are more and more that have or will have a decline in their hearing and there are ways that church members can help.

When communicating with a hard of hearing person, get their attention first, speak clearly, pick a quiet spot to engage in conversation and when speaking do not put your hands or anything else in front of your mouth. If the person is having a hard time understanding you try to rephrase your sentence. If it is something really important write it down, such as an address or phone number or a church meeting time. Above all don't shout.

Hand out out copies of the sermon to those that acknowledge their need and leave some available for those that might not be ready to admit their loss but can pick them up on their own as they enter the church. We also have a Williams Sound FM system, which was what I used prior to my implantation and still use if I am not in the front pew. I convinced another parishioner to try the Williams Sounds FM system and she was just amazed and thankful that we have it available for her to use, she uses it faithfully and feels so much more a part of the service. At our Contemporary Service everything is in a Power Point and shown on a wall, that worked better than a screen, a number of people have commented on how easy it is to follow the service that way.

My church family had so much faith in me that I was elected to Vestry where Mother Sandra (the priest at All Saints') would type for me if she saw I wasn't understanding something. I also was elected to the Deanery and a delegate to the Annual Diocesan Conventions. The first year I was given my own CART person. CART stands for Communication Access Realtime Translation. In the years since then Bishop Gutierrez and the Convention Committee have supplied CART and real time video and it is shown on screens around the Cathedral so all of us at the convention can see what is going on and also have the captions; and therefore aware of what is being said regardless of where we are sitting and the status of hearing ability.

Since the pandemic, it has been wonderful for me to be able to attend worship with our Bishop Gutierrez on the One Love Channel, YouTube or Channel 3 as they are captioned. I also have streamed some services from other Diocesan Churches that have also been using captions.

It would be ideal if all churches used CART on an ongoing basis if they can afford it. If there is someone that you know is Deaf /Hearing Impaired don't be afraid to ask them what you can do to help them be part of the service and also don't forget them at fellowship time.

I have a few friends that were born deaf and attended the PA School for the Deaf, they use American Sign Language for their first language, but all of them are familiar with CART and can make use of it, although if the church can afford it an Interpreter would be welcomed by them.

I have found that many churches don't let people know what they have available in the way of accommodations. This should be something that is included all communications (bulletins, web site, etc.)  for current parishioners and as a way to attract new attendees.