Recruiting the Deaf

Women and Sign Language

It’s worth mentioning that even before Translation Services took total control, interpreters, mostly women, all over the US were seeing a remarkable amount of progress in that deaf circuits were formed that had their own circuit overseers.

This is important to note because when Translation Services took over the work, there were many changes, not all of them good as far as women signers were concerned. For years they led the interpreting and training in congregations– consistently doing things right – and investing an enormous amount of time and energy.  With Translation Services directing, suddenly these women were relegated back to their seats like in the non-deaf congregations – and had to sit through meetings while men, who were less qualified than they were, were used simply because they were men.  This happened gradually, but it was particularly heart breaking and damaging to many women signers.

Soon, decisions made in Bethel about women signing in videos sent seriously disturbing ripples through the signing world of Jehovah’s Witnesses.  For instance, in the video “The Secret of Family Happiness,” a hard-of-hearing woman (Luci DiGiovanna) signed the informational boxes that appeared in the book which were mostly anecdotal. Her hard-of-hearing husband (Ron DiGiovanna) was the main signer in the video and both were phenomenal signers. There was criticism coming from a powerful corner of the Watch Tower organization that felt women should not teach or be put in a position where they appeared to teach. There was disapproval even if women signed songs on videos. And there were demands that these women wear a head covering to show submission.

Head Covering Rules

However, this situation had been addressed by the Society in Questions From Readers (QFR)  in the June 15, 1977 Watchtower. It was explained that women signers were not teaching in the congregation, but just relaying information in another language so it was not necessary to wear a head covering. Then again in QFR, July 15, 2002 Watchtower, the issue came up again and the answer was the same as in 1977—“No. Sisters handling these duties are not presiding or teaching … no head covering is required.”

Moving ahead to 2009, attempted modifications to the rule were presented in the November 15th Watchtower QFR where it was pointed out that due to “…developments in the technology used when talks are interpreted into sign language, the interpreter’s role may become even more magnified. An image of the signer’s interpretation is commonly featured on a large screen while the speaker himself may not even be visible to the audience. With these factors in mind, it would thus seem appropriate for the sister who interprets into sign language to acknowledge her secondary role as an interpreter by wearing a head covering.”

Further clarifying the Society’s position on this issue, the article explains that it would not be necessary to wear a head covering for parts on the Ministry School, demonstrations, and comments during the Congregation Bible Study, the Service Meeting, and the Watchtower Study.  Yet, “when interpreting talks for brothers during these meetings, when interpreting for the Watchtower Study conductor or the conductor of the Congregation Bible Study, or when taking the lead in signing songs, she should wear a head covering.” It was then suggested that it would “…be more practical to wear a head covering during the entire meeting.”

In other words, it took the entire article to tell women interpreters to wear a head covering during the whole meeting.  And this tells the reader that in the 145 Witness sign language congregations in the US, there are not enough men to deliver their own talks in sign language, although, as previously pointed out, this was the main intention when creating sign language congregations so there would be no more need to use interpreters.  Interestingly, this new view was imposed only after the Governing Body took an active hands-on role in the sign language segment of the organization.  Holy Spirit or misogyny?  We’ll let the reader decide.

Forming Sign Language Congregations

Found within a decent sized city there can be a typical English speaking circuit with one or two deaf persons attending meetings, perhaps a baptized Witness or maybe a progressing Bible study. An elder or someone in one of these congregations (usually someone who already signs fluently but not always), who has the ear of the circuit overseer (CO), tells him there is potential for growth in the sign language field in the circuit. The CO then contacts the Branch Office and requests permission to have a sign language class in his circuit. If the Branch responds favorably, a list is sent to the CO containing the names of brothers who have been trained by the Society’s Foreign Language Teaching Seminar to teach sign language. The CO then tries to find someone within driving distance of his circuit (preferably IN his circuit or willing to move there), contacts him, and they schedule a sign language class.

The CO then sends out a form letter to all of the congregations in his circuit (and perhaps a few bordering congregations in a neighboring circuit, if he’s a close friend with the CO there, otherwise this is not acceptable), asking for volunteers to learn a foreign language in order to help support the ministry in the foreign language field. The prewritten form letter provided by the Watch Tower Society doesn’t specify what the language is. If the CO wants to type up his own letter, or add a postscript to the form letter, he can then specify the language. However, it’s not unusual for COs to simply send out the Society’s generalized form letter. If there are twenty to twenty-five applicants or so, they are selected to participate in the sign language class. Preference is given to elders, pioneers and ministerial servants.

When there is an elder or ministerial servant who is fluent enough to conduct a meeting in sign language, he is asked to do so in order that the deaf met in the field can be invited to a meeting in their own language. This usually starts with a separate Congregation Bible Study (formerly book study) or Watchtower Study for the deaf.

In the past, sign language group meetings that included a public talk and Watchtower Study were held completely separate from the spoken meetings of the sponsoring congregation.  Then, late in 2009, the organization handed down a directive.  Apparently, elders and ministerial servants were administering their sign language groups almost as independent, mini-congregations with the full body of elders from the sponsoring congregation basically rubber-stamping whatever they wanted to do, as long as it didn’t mean any extra burden on them or the rest of the congregation.  Also, many of the hearing members of sign language groups would skip their spoken congregation meeting since they already attended a public talk and Watchtower Study in sign language for that week.  Independence of any sort, as anyone ever associated with the Watch Tower knows, is frowned upon, and so a letter was sent to all sign language groups in the US Branch instructing them to hold their meetings at the same time as their sponsoring congregation.  The benefits, as enumerated in the letter, would be that those participating in the group would be able to share in association with all of their “brothers” before and after the meetings, and elders and ministerial servants would not be burdened with as much extra responsibility stemming from the sign language group.

Unfortunately, this proved to be a huge inconvenience to sign language groups because very few auxiliary rooms in Kingdom Halls are large enough to hold the number of Witnesses and visitors in attendance, and many sign language groups had already installed a good amount of expensive video equipment in the main hall of their Kingdom Halls.  In many sign language groups, a large number of hearing participants who normally attended the sign language meetings could no longer fit into the room.  Some groups had to make informal schedules in which hearing Witnesses would alternate with one another between the spoken and signed meetings.  Other groups would have their separate-but-together meetings spill out into the lobby and multiple auxiliary rooms.  One group even had a video monitor remotely set up in their Kingdom Hall’s kitchen to help handle the overflow.

How could those in charge at the Branch Office have overlooked such an obvious problem when making such a decision?  Evidently, they viewed the importance of keeping Witnesses under a tighter leash as more important than sign language group meeting attendance or the wasted money of the local Witnesses. This was the second major change since the Governing Body took a more active role in the sign language ministry.

As soon as possible after establishing a sign language group, all the other meetings are interpreted into sign language as well, with the deaf joining the hearing in the main auditorium. At the point where there is a regular weekly meeting in the language and an elder “taking the lead,” his local congregation applies for recognition as an official sign language group.

Often, around a year after the first class that was learning sign language ends, the group begins making arrangements for another to be held. At this point the sign language group may have twenty-five to thirty members in it, with one or two regular sign language meetings per week. The other meetings are regular English speaking meetings which are interpreted for the deaf. If there are already a couple elders and a couple of ministerial servants who are learning the language relatively well, it is hoped this second class will add a couple more of each so that they will have enough to form their own congregation. Establishing the second class follows the same process as the first.

Some time during the first couple of years of being an official group, the congregation is visited by the CO of the area’s sign language circuit to help the hearing elders understand how they can help the group progress and to advise the English CO about how things usually work.

Then when the sign language group has enough elders who feel they can run a congregation effectively, including having a full service committee and conducting ALL meetings in sign language (no more interpreting, except in perhaps remote areas where forty-eight signing speakers a year are impossible to find), they convince the two COs that it is time to apply for congregational status.  If approved, there will be another sign language congregation. As of just a few years ago, there were six American Sign Language circuits in the US.

Growth Not What It Seems

It is important to note that by this time (two or three years after the initial contact with the CO to get this ball rolling) there might be around fifty publishers—mostly pioneers, elders, and ministerial servants—and from zero (unusual but does happen) to five deaf people with few of them in a position to provide leadership as elders, ministerial servants, or even pioneers.  For example, for most of the six years one hearing Witness translator was in the Waterbury, Connecticut, American Sign Language congregation, there was no leadership from any deaf member of the congregation.  Eventually, Watch Tower brought in one young deaf ministerial servant to work in Bethel, and one local deaf brother was appointed as a ministerial servant. This was about five to six years after the congregation was established and insiders wondered if the congregation must have existed for reasons other than claimed. Most recently, there was only one deaf person in that entire sign language congregation.

But the growth of actual deaf converts, while seemingly small, is real and as a percentage fairly significant in comparison to the English congregations. Where an English congregation of one hundred may have also had five baptisms over the same three-year period as the fifty-member sign language congregation did, in the English probably four of the five were born-in teenagers who when baptized add ZERO to the publisher totals since they’ve been publishing since they were little kids. In the American Sign Language congregations the five baptisms are likely all from the field (these numbers are hypothetical, remember, but typical). So the growth in sign language is real, but the numbers are misleading as a whole.

So while the sign language circuits have been growing with congregations popping up all over the place, the vast majority of the numbers in those congregations and circuits are actually LOSSES from the English congregations in the vicinity.

The older, more established congregations in large urban areas have a greater number of deaf people than the newer congregations in mid-sized to smaller cities. One hearing former ministerial servant (a very good interpreter/speaker from a deaf family) gave talks in the mid-Atlantic area from New England to Georgia over the last several years. He observed that while a newer congregation may have fifty publishers total with two to four deaf, an established congregation may have a couple dozen deaf and eighty total publishers.

At a district convention with say, 3000 in attendance, this ministerial servant said he would be surprised to find more than 500 are deaf.  The vast majority of those in attendance are hearing Jehovah’s Witnesses who learned sign language in order to work in the deaf ministry and grow the sign language congregations and circuits.  The others in attendance are not Witnesses but Bible studies or relatives of deaf Witnesses who want to learn American Sign Language to communicate with their loved ones. The statistics are that “ninety-five percent of deaf children are born into hearing families, but only 10 percent of parents learn enough American Sign Language to have a conversation beyond ‘pass the salt’ and ‘be quiet.’”[foot]Christianity Today, January 5, 2011, Do You Hear What I Hear? by Jeremy Weber [/foot]

One former sign language translator stated the reason why there are so many American Sign Language congregations is because there are more hearing people that want to learn sign language and support American Sign Language congregations and that’s why a very large percentage of the American Sign Language congregations are hearing. Too many deaf Jehovah’s Witnesses have little education. Consequently, they are very gullible and become Witnesses without doing any investigating. That’s not saying there aren’t educated deaf Witnesses because there are. In such cases, the Witnesses belief system apparently fills some type of need they have; perhaps, it is the comfort of being embraced by a deaf community.

As for the involvement of the hearing Witnesses, insiders are confident that for the most part the participation is a sincere expression of a true believer’s desire to serve a need without having to leave one’s own country or oftentimes without having to move at all. Also, because of the challenge of learning a second language, especially a nonverbal one, English congregations often lose their smartest people to the foreign language groups and congregations.

A Former Jehovah’s Witness reports

The goal of these new congregations is ostensibly to give a witness more than it is to take care of current deaf JWs. They want to preach to the deaf and get “the truth” to as many of them as possible in the time left and to give the witness to the community that Jehovah takes care of those with special needs. The story often given to hearing folks about how wonderful it all is, is that while hearing congregations try to cover their territories over and over, trying to contact people as many times as possible before the end comes, deaf groups and congregations are working just to find deaf people so as to give them an opportunity at life for the very first, and, possibly, only time in their lives.

Monetarily Supporting the Sign Language Ministry

As for money, deaf people are generally relatively poor so the Watch Tower Society likely isn’t getting more donations (in total) via this work. Most deaf people don’t read the Watch Tower Society’s literature because they don’t read well, although they would love to. This, unfortunately, is because most hearing parents don’t sign and a lot of deaf education is focused on teaching them to speak, so they don’t learn important things – like how to read well.  Inasmuch as the same material available in the magazines is generally in sign language on DVD and downloadable online, the deaf take advantage of what is offered by the Society. The production and shipping costs of a DVD is probably much lower than that of a printed magazine once the initial technology provided for a deaf congregation has been covered.

Deaf Ministry Motivation

Motivations are a rather complex issue when it comes to the Watch Tower’s deaf ministry. It really is a huge expense to the local spoken language circuits to set up a Kingdom Hall for sign language. Other than maybe federal grants,[foot],[/foot] or as some sort of write-off, no one knows what the Watch Tower Society gets out of it, if anything. In the US, there are grants from the Department of Education given to non-profits to teach people to be deaf translators, but it is difficult to find out if Watch Tower has been the recipients of such grants.  If the Society is a recipient of grant money, it is very profitable since the Watch Tower Society spends very little money on the sign language ministry work. To be fair, since the Witnesses would never open their doors to teach sign language to non-Witnesses, it doesn’t seem likely that the Watch Tower could get funding from a federal agency, although large charities might be willing because religion usually is not a factor.

Every Kingdom Hall that is set up for deaf/sign language meetings have a lot of expensive video equipment that varies in total cost from around $8,000 to over $20,000 (and sometimes entail an entire Kingdom Hall remodeling project), and everything needed is paid for from within the local circuit. To reiterate, the Watch Tower Society contributes nothing.

What the sign language congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses have at their Kingdom Halls looks a lot like a television studio (cameras, TV monitors, mixing boards, hard drives, etc.). The monitors are usually throughout the Kingdom Hall or Assembly Hall (library, spanking room, kitchen, lobby) with either a large projection screen or large flat-panel monitors in the main auditorium. Sometimes there are cameras mounted in the ceilings which are aimed via remote control, or there is a “camera-man” on stage that captures comments, similar to carrying the microphones at a hearing meeting so that those making comments can be seen on all of the monitors without having to leave their seats. There is also a camera aimed at the podium so that the speaker/conductor can be seen on the monitor.

Scriptures are rarely if ever signed by a speaker. Rather, the society’s version of the scripture is played by the brother in the booth when the speaker asks for it. They are either on DVD or in more modern setups saved to a hard disk drive. DVDs are available on request but the scriptures are also downloadable from  along with some of the other American Sign Language literature. Many enterprising brothers have also taken verses from the Hebrew Scriptures that happened to be quoted in some of the other literature (Bible Teach, Watchtower, etc.) and ripped them from the original DVD onto the Kingdom Hall’s hard drive or another compilation DVD so that brothers have as many scriptures available as possible for their talks.  In religions with unique definitions and doctrines like Jehovah’s Witnesses such conformity of expression is important in reducing individuality and building homogeneity.  This is another key reason individual interpreters have been phased out and replaced by men who strictly follow Watch Tower provided talk outlines. Continued on next page…

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