This year marks the 40th anniversary of the John Pierce Centre (JPC), a place where deaf and hard of hearing Catholics and their families are supported and encouraged in their personal and spiritual growth.

Every year in August, the Centre celebrates Ephpheta Sunday, where members of the deaf community travel from far and wide to gather for a special Mass and meal. Ephpheta is an Aramaic word meaning ‘be opened’. At this particular Mass, the community listens to the gospel story of Jesus healing the deaf man (Mark 7:31-37). The passage is significant because it is the only time that Jesus interacts with a deaf person in the gospels. The focus of the gospel, however, is not simply on his being healed, but on his encounter with Jesus’ who invites him to ‘be opened’ and receive the Good News.

Janette Murphy, who worked at JPC and now volunteers her time as an Auslan interpreter, says the action in the gospel story acknowledges that deaf people can proclaim the Good News of Christ and promote the Kingdom of God in the same as any other person can.

‘It is a recognition of deaf people as people of faith,’ she says.

One of the graces of this time of physical isolation due to COVID-19 has been a closer collaboration between the Archdiocese and JPC, whose Auslan interpreters have become an onscreen fixture at Sunday Masses live-streamed from St Patrick’s Cathedral. It’s been a welcome addition, with many commenting on how enriching the Auslan presence has been – and not just from the deaf community.

‘The Auslan translator was amazing,’ one online attendee commented. ‘I’m not a hearing-impaired person but the joy in her face and the manner in which she aided those with hearing impairment was inspirational.’ Another commented on how they have come to appreciate the way in which theological concepts and expressions are conveyed through Auslan and how ‘it must be such a comfort to those in the community who are deaf or hearing impaired.’

The provision of Auslan has not only beneficial for the deaf and hard of hearing but has provided the opportunity for the whole community of faith to gather as one for Sunday worship.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll get to know our Auslan interpreters Janette Murphy, Katrina Mynard and Teresa Paulet – who’ll each share how they became involved with JPC and how the deaf community has been coping during this time of COVID-19.

This week we chat with Katrina Mynard, who works as a Pastoral Care Coordinator at the John Pierce Centre and whose affiliation with the JPC community began as a child.

Katrina Mynard

What is your role at the John Pierce Centre (JPC) and what do you enjoy most about the community?

I’ve known JPC all my life pretty much. My parents used to take me and my deaf, older sister to JPC, every third Sunday (Mass was only on offer once a month at that time, and is the same today). We lived in Lang Lang and my parents struggled to put petrol in the car to go to Melbourne each month bringing along our four other siblings. It was a great experience to be with deaf people at JPC. It provided a community of role models for me and my sister, perhaps not always the best role models but it was always fun!

Now I work at JPC – I’ve been there for almost 15 years. My role is Pastoral Care Coordinator and it can be an incredibly challenging job at times, whilst at other times joyful. There are all types of people with different needs and we are supporting people through all of the highs and lows in their life. You always need to be compassionate and understanding.

What I enjoy the most about the Community is being there with them, and for them, during many of these important moments. I can see their smiling faces or their relief when help is given. Most of the time, it is important to give them choices and assist them in understanding the consequences or potential outcomes. Sometimes I need to have “thick skin” to be able to support them through emotional times. At other times I need to be direct so that they understand the choices they are making. But all of the work is crucial in supporting a unique community with its own culture, language and history.

People don’t often realise that Auslan is just one of many types of sign language within the deaf community. How many other languages are used here in Australia?

Auslan is the standard language used in Australia (Auslan stands for Australian Sign Language). However, around the world, we don’t sign the same. For example, in America they have ASL (American Sign Language) and they use one handed alphabet signs whereas in Australia, we use a two-handed alphabet.

It is a bit difficult nowadays [to know how many other languages are used in Australia] because some deaf people learned Irish Sign Language at school but it is no longer taught so will fade out with that generation. Auslan has its roots in British Sign Language which came with the colonisation of Australia. But these days we also see ‘borrowed’ signs from American Sign language and other sign languages. In the early 1980s, there was a sign language called “signed English” which is not used now but some of the signs are still around; then there is Makaton which is a keyword signing used in the Disability sector. The language has quite a complex history and like any language is constantly evolving. It is also used in different ways. For example, deafblind people use Auslan (sometimes in an adjusted way) in a tactile capacity so that they can feel the signs.

For me I never formally ‘learned’ but I absorbed it by watching deaf people and being immersed in sign language. My parents used to take me to JPC each month and there I just naturally acquired signs. When my older deaf sister met her deaf husband I was using Auslan all the time. It was natural, when mixing with the deaf, to absorb Auslan because it made sense and was clear communication. I would say that my fluency improved over time so that when I was in my early teens I was quite fluent. And now I teach Auslan classes at Melbourne Polytechnic and Expression Australia. Of course I’m still improving my teaching skills and fortunately, we have a team of deaf tutors who provide professional support.

What are some of the other common myths and misconceptions you’ve encountered about disability in the wider community? How can we address these?

I, like many deaf people have joined the NDIS (National Disability Insurance Scheme) which provides money for interpreting costs, Visual Alert equipment etc., which has been extremely helpful in providing appropriate access in my life. I remember, growing up, my aunty used to talk to me so close to my face. She thought it would help me to understand but because I couldn’t see her lips naturally, it made communicating more difficult. Some people would speak to me louder when I told them that I am deaf, but speaking louder would not make any difference because I still could not hear.

Hopefully with NDIS funds, we can access interpreting more easily when we need it in order to bridge the gaps in communication. In my family, sometimes, I don’t use interpreters because the dynamics are different. However, sometimes I do want interpreters for large important family gatherings, and with NDIS funds it is my choice when and where I have interpreters. The choice and control is the most important part for deaf people as we are the best person to make decisions about our own lives.

What was it like to grow up as a deaf person in a faith community? Was there support available to you and your family from within your parish?

Like I said earlier, my parents used to take me and my sister, Maree, to deaf church once a month in Melbourne. Just one Sunday per month. Every other Sunday, we went to our local parish. I suppose I was lucky to have a deaf sister in my life (she passed away four years ago). We used to talk nonstop at the church, and in the end, my dad had to put us in a different seat away from others as we were distracting. But we couldn’t understand what the priest was saying. My mum tried to use the Mass book to help us follow along through the Mass but still, I never understood or knew what was going on, especially with the homily because there was no script provided.

How might we encourage more support to be offered by local parishes?

Well, I guess that depends on the person and what they want. It is up to them how much involvement they want to have. Again, with NDIS funds, this should now provide opportunities for access so that they don’t feel “left out”. But it’s important to ask what someone needs. Sometimes I prefer going to church where there are screens on the wall, so I can read the text of the words as well as listen to the sounds of the songs. It’s important to provide access that is engaging to the deaf person, otherwise, we are probably going to feel bored or get distracted by the candles or the crosses or the beautiful windows.

You once commented that speech is sometimes not as expressive as what you can achieve with sign language. Can you give us an example?

We have NMF (non-manual features) which can give measure to the spectrum of how soft to harsh your communication is. In speech, this would be the same as the tone of your voice. You can voice it with a cheeky voice, a sarcastic voice or maybe an angry voice. But with us, we can show these same characteristics by using NMF with face and body expressions. Speech for me can be difficult especially when I’ve never heard a particular word before. For example, when I learned the word Tsunami. I used to pronounce it ‘summer ni’. My mum corrected me by saying, ‘tsoo nar me’. Whereas in sign language, I can just move my hands with a specific action to make the huge waves.

Where have you found energy during this time of the COVID-19 lockdown?

To tell you the truth, I’ve enjoyed being at home more than usual. Before I was always up at 6am and home at 10pm. But now I get up around 7.30am – 8am and I am home most of the time and finished work by 9pm and guess I have more time for domestic duties like the washing throughout the day. Contact around the deaf community is not too difficult because of great technology but it is definitely tiring to use Zoom or FaceTime constantly. It can be exhausting to look at a screen all day where there can be internet issues. It is not a natural way to work.

What have you learned about yourself during this time?

Well, for me, time to myself at home – I learned that I liked being at home. It is time for me to be strategic about how I work so that I can be successful. I am currently working four different jobs which can be demanding, but I love working in the deaf community and it will always be my passion no matter where I am.

How has COVID-19 impacted ‘operations’ at JPC and how has the Centre adapted to continue serving the community?

I do miss JPC staff team. They are wonderful people and you can feel the love and understanding in our workspace. deaf people do prefer to work face to face. It’s easier to communicate, seeing the person as a whole rather than on video which you only see 2D, not 3D. Deaf people love to talk like everyone but it is also an important way that we share information. We all talk about anything, work, home, family life to what’s happening in the news and government issues and in 2020 there has been a lot of government information to get out to the community. Some would say the deaf people love to gossip. I call this the “deaf radio”. deaf people don’t listen to the radio which is used in the hearing world to regularly disseminate information. For us, we see news through newspapers, Facebook, television, and then we share it with each other so that we can all be aware of current issues.

COVID-19, I believe, has had a huge impact on everyone – deaf and hearing. But for the deaf, I do worry that some might not understand the news clearly, especially because the government makes regular adjustments to the restrictions and guidance. For me personally, I feel sad that I was not able to attend funerals, because funerals for us are like a reunion of our deaf family where we catch up with many deaf people that I haven’t seen for a long time.

What’s the first thing you’re going to do (or the first place you’ll visit) when Victoria emerges from its current lockdown restrictions?

I love my family and I would like to see my parents first. Then eventually brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews. I would be happy to go shopping but I’ve learned online shopping is a good thing too. I think JPC would be OK, once we get all the activities back into our hall, I’ll be able to see the people and know they are OK or support those who are not doing well after all this time in isolation. I do want Christmas with my family, so yes, here’s hoping it’s sooner rather than later.

Visit the John Pierce Centre website to learn more about their work and programs.