The Gift of Deafness
By Fr Thomas Rouse
Father Tom worked in Fiji most of the time from 1977 until this year. He is now based in Lower Hutt, near Wellington, in his native New Zealand. While in Fiji he served as Regional Director for some years. He served two three-year terms as Regional Director of the Columbans in Fiji, from 2007 until 2013.
It was to the credit of the Columbans that I was accepted as a candidate for priesthood. That was back in 1969 when I was completing Form Seven in high school at St John’s College, Hastings, New Zealand.
I was accepted despite the fact that I was not only deaf but I also suffered a serious speech impediment which was a consequence of my hearing disability. My deafness was more peculiar rather than pronounced. I cannot hear high-pitched sounds. As a result, I cannot hear many of the consonants in my own ‘native’ English language.
Nevertheless I was admitted into the seminary at St Columban’s College, North Turramurra, Sydney, Australia. But, by the end of my first year, it was evident that my speech impediment would be a serious handicap if I wished to progress towards ordained ministry since one of the principal tasks of an ordained priest is to preach. How could I effectively preach if people could not understand what I was saying?
So I was advised to seek the help of a speech therapist at Royal North Shore Hospital in Sydney. There I was fortunate to receive the help of a young female therapist who gave me a set of charts which indicated where I should place my tongue, lips and teeth in the pronunciation of each of the consonants.
So I devoted a year to this program of intense therapy. It meant spending roughly an hour each morning and an hour in the afternoon standing in front of the mirror in my room and practicing the different consonants. I gradually got the impression that this simple habit of constant practice in the pronunciation of the consonants, resulted in a significant improvement in my speech. It also helped to boost my confidence in public speaking.
However, a couple of years later, I became aware that members of the teaching staff at St Columban’s were also concerned about my ability to learn another language which is an essential prerequisite for anyone seeking to take up work as a foreign missionary.
So I was advised that I would probably be better off becoming a diocesan priest and working in my own country or an English-speaking environment because I would find it difficult to learn another language. After some discernment, I informed the rector that I wished to continue on in seminary formation to become a Columban missionary priest.
Again, it was to the remarkable credit of the Columbans and the staff of St Columban’s seminary that I was allowed to continue on.
In my ordination year, Columban Fr David Arms, a New Zealander, a linguist and missionary priest working in Fiji, came to see me at St Columban’s seminary to assess what language or languages I would be more likely able to learn given my hearing disability.
In his judgment, I could more easily learn Fijian because many of the sounds in that language are low-pitched and well within my hearing range.
So, after ordination and the completion of my seminary formation program, I went to Fiji in January 1977 and commenced language studies the following month. What I learnt, apart from a new language, was that deafness would prove to be a great gift in learning another language.
I came to realize that one of the greatest difficulties for any adult in learning a new language is to be like a little child again as you struggle to express new sounds and to put sentences together so as to make yourself understood. This would also include, what is for many, the humiliating experience of people laughing at you because what you said sounded funny and awkward.
For me, this was an experience I had grown to live and cope with throughout most of my early life because of my speech impediment. When people laughed at what I said, they would be informed that I was deaf. This would mean that they would get embarrassed and say, ‘I am sorry. I did not know’.
And I had learnt to turn such potentially embarrassing situations into very humorous ones by means of a funny comment and by assuring these people that no offence was taken and that there is something funny, awkward or unusual about each one of us. As St Paul wrote, ‘For whenever I am weak, then I am strong’ (2 Corinthians 12:10). As I was learning Fijian, I remember the delightful experience of watching people laugh as I struggled to put words and sentences together. According to indigenous Fijians, shame is a terrible burden to inflict upon anyone. They therefore have the traditional practice of placing their hands over their mouths when they are laughing, particularly when they are laughing at what someone is saying or doing.
But I would have no difficulty in simply saying, ‘Oh no, what have I just said? What should I say?’ My hosts would giggle and gently correct me. And, unlike many of my fellow foreign missionaries, I found the whole experience a source of great enjoyment.
So I became a reasonably fluent speaker in the major indigenous Fijian language.
I believe that God intended me to be deaf because God was calling me to be a missionary. And it was to the great credit of my Columban vocations director and the members of the staff at St Columban’s seminary that I was allowed to pursue what I believe was my God-given vocation. And the rest has been a wonderful and oftentimes fun-filled experience.
Responses of Deaf Filipinos to The Gift of Deafness
Norman Pasamonte, Willy Articulo, Eli Ong and Noel Caro are profoundly deaf and are catechists to deaf children in Bacolod City. They are attached to Welcome Home Foundation, Incorporated, founded by Fr Joseph Coyle, a Columban priest who died in December 1991 who was a pioneer in ministry to the Deaf in the Diocese of Bacolod here in the Philippines.
Those who are profoundly deaf describe themselves as ‘deaf’, not as ‘hard of hearing’. When they refer to themselves as a group or community they use the term ‘Deaf’, with a capital ‘D’.
September 23, 2014
Dear Father Tom,
Have a great day ahead and may God bless us always. I am Norman Pasamonte, a deaf catechist from Bacolod City, Philippines. I am married to a deaf woman, Francesca Marie, and we have two hearing children, Nathan Frank aged 5 and Imelio Francis Clyd aged one. I serve God and deaf people here in my place.
I admired your message when I read it. It is a great and truly wonderful experience just like what I experienced when I was young. It was a very wonderful joy to learn and to speak English and to pronounce words correctly and put sentences together.
Honestly, I am fluent in speaking my own language (Filipino/Tagalog) but I found it hard to speak English during my younger days.
Even though I can’t hear any sounds I can speak clearly. People sometimes laugh at me when I speak English, but I notice the joy in their faces when they laugh at me because they themselves cannot correct what I am saying to them because they can only mumble a few words in English. When I ask them why they laugh they say, ‘Your voice is nice’. But I can’t hear what I am saying. I have experienced this so many times even until now. But I can’t stop learning now. I know how to write in English but I still don’t know how wonderful and nice my voice is because I can’t hear it as I am deaf (bungol).
Deaf Catechist – SPRED (Special Religious Development)
I am very happy to continue as a missionary and catechist for the Deaf. A priest who knows how to sign during Sunday Mass will help the Deaf understand it.
When people speak because they do not know Sign Language, the Deaf cannot understand because they cannot hear. The Deaf should be patient. Deaf children in Welcome Home cannot hear. I communicate with them through Sign Language. I help deaf children to know how to share, to be friendly and to be thankful to God. I want to be a responsible catechist and leader. I prepare the church for Mass every Sunday. I teach catechesis to the Deaf in SPED (Special Education) schools in Bacolod City.
Thank you, Father
I am very happy that I can speak English, though my grammar isn’t correct. I communicate through Sign Language with deaf and hearing adults. I am encouraged that your deafness has proven to be a great gift in learning another language.
Fr Thomas can speak in a language other than his own even though he is deaf. I can sign in different ways: ASL (American Sign Language) and FSL (Filipino Sign Language) to communicate with the Deaf about God.
I know that deaf and hard of hearing people will be hopeful with a deaf priest in the Church ministry.
May God bless me in my mission and may God bless you and give you strength so as not to give up. Have faith in God, Father Thomas. May you have good health.
Thanks, Father Tom. I am proud of you that you became a priest to preach and proclaim message of Jesus despite being deaf. I am very happy that you became strong in working with hearing people even if you can’t hear clearly or speak as clearly as they can. God gave you courage to be a priest, though deaf. Don’t mind other people. As a priest you can be fair to all. Many people with good hearing may laugh at you, but you must continue to be strong. When you are old Jesus will bring you to heaven you will be able to hear and speak clearly. I am Noel and I am married to Jenny who is also deaf. We have three hearing children, Shiela aged 13, Selena aged 11 and Kenneth aged 8. My wife and I have taught them Sign Language.
Thank you, Father Tom
Response to The Gift of Deafness
Fr Seán Coyle with friends at Holy Family Home
Marinela, 14, can hear to a limited degree. Since early this year she has been living at Holy Family Home for Girls [video], run by the Capuchin Tertiary Sisters of the Holy Family, in Cabug, on the outskirts of Bacolod City. Welcome Home referred Marinela to Holy Family Home.
When I arrived at Holy Family Home early this year I started reading a story book for children. Then an aspirant named Sr Maricel taught me how to read well.
When June was approaching Sr Lorena Sacal TC, Directress of Holy Family Home, told me that I would be studying in Cabug Elementary School. It is a school for normal students and so I was afraid because in my former school for deaf student we don’t have Filipino, the national language, as a subject.
I was afraid too because my classmate were naughty. But my teacher was very concerned about and patient with me. And I found a friend in Holy Family Home who accepted me as I am. Her name is Jovelyn. And my other companions are good to me. I feel that the Sister and staff of Holy Family Home are good to me. They and the staff of Welcome Home Foundation have loved and supported me. That is why I have now developed confidence to talk and to try to learn Filipino. In fact I passed the examination in school.
And I am trying also to be good and to learn more.
Just like Father Thomas I started to face my fears even if many times I have cried. But I’m happy to be me and to be loved by God.