Waving the white napkin, and 7 other things you see at Deaf weddings

Guest post by Aimee Chou
 | Photography by Tate Tullier Photography
Tate Tullier Photography
Tate Tullier Photography

“Here Comes the Bride” never played. There were no — or minimal — table centerpieces. What's more, the officiant didn't utter a peep during the ceremony. These are just a few wedding features designed with Deaf/hard of hearing guests' needs in mind. Offbeat to those in the hearing world, they are simply common sense to any Deaf guest you invite to your wedding.

Just ask Sheena McFeely, a Deaf event planner and the creator of The Pearls Awards. When she married her husband Manny (also Deaf), they carefully balanced both worlds:

Together, we have a lot of Deaf friends as well as hearing friends. So, when it came to planning our dream wedding, accessibility for all was priority to us. We disliked being left out, so we didn't want people to go through what we went through.

Having planned countless weddings with accessibility in mind, she's certain of one thing: Deaf culture can make any wedding more accessible (and more awesome!). Here are eight things to think about if you'd like to add Deaf-friendly wedding features to your wedding:

The bride and groom both signing “support.”

1: Hold the ceremonial music

McFeely and her groom made a cultural statement by omitting “Here Comes the Bride.” She walked down the aisle in silence.

“Our parents were in complete shock,” she recalled. “We put our foot down and said, ‘Hey, we're Deaf.' We even joked that we all should appreciate the sounds of nature around us.”

But they didn't skimp on cues:

  • A limo pulled up to indicate that she, the Bride, had arrived.
  • They hired two DJs who, by happy coincidence, happened to know sign language.
  • For their dance, McFeely tasked her elementary teacher (who is a choir signing teacher) to sign all the signs.
  • Lastly, a hearing friend sang all the songs.

2. Unleash the tempo beast (with after-party balloons)

Silent as the Deaf world may be, we dig a hearty dose of thumpin' bass music. Stuff that makes our breakfast tingle and our brains jingle. So much so that we take a cue from kids and ravers: feeling vibrations through helium balloons. You just might see a few Deaf wedding guests string balloons around their waists during the after-party.

If you choose to set your after-party afloat with latex, do it with one discretion: “Some find it offensive especially if balloons are being handed out directly,” said McFeely. “If it's a must, find a place for the balloons so people can take one at their own will.”

3. Signed karaoke

Forget backup singers for a second. It's backup signers who will steal the show at your wedding after-party.

Love the Rocky song but not sure it'll jive with a wedding playlist? Secretly dig “Storybook Love” (the Princess Bride theme song) but never knew if ANY of your guests know how to sing it?

Let your backup signers handle it, with nimble-fingered prowess. Bonus: You'll get to see intense lyrics like “people barfed in the crowd, they were going insane, then Rocky punched my nose bone into my brain” as well as “don't you know I love you oh so much and lay my heart at the foot of your dress” enacted in highly visual ways. It'll be like Charades, on speed. Whether they know the song or not, Deafies excel at creative improvisation (it's practically a survival skill).

This is a chance to get truly experimental, and bust out of karaoke status quo. The best part is, you don't need any specialized equipment since all karaoke is subtitled anyway. Just provide a tolerant and fun environment and encourage your shy Deaf guest(s) to strut their stuff on-stage!

4. Vertically-challenged centerpieces

“The higher the hair, the closer to God.” Florists have taken these lyrics to heart, building veritable candelabra skyscrapers brimming with white hydrangeas and cymbidium orchids on satin ribbons. And why not? It's dramatic, it's elegant, it's … beautifully obtrusive. They block our views of the people — and hands — we need to see.

“No centerpieces or a small centerpiece,” is McFeely's rule. “Being the event planner, I cannot imagine not having a centerpiece. But should there be a centerpiece that blocks (guests) from having a conversation, they will take them off the table.”

So, think tea lights and votives. Think plum mini calla lilies snaking low across tables. Think low 10″ bowls with 3″ floating candles. You just might end up saving mega-bucks on floral arrangements

Not willing to forgo tall centerpieces? Create a small one at the one table you know your Deaf guest(s) will be seated at. Also, consider a projector screen with a video of the couple saying their vows. The bigger the screen, the easier it is to see the action.


5. Wedding “terps” who won't photo-bomb your pics

“I try my hardest to get to know each family before I arrive so no awkward photos are taken,” said Tate Tullier, a Deaf freelance photographer who along with his Deaf wife Sarah have captured weddings all over the US.

Luckily for Tullier, the professionalism of sign language interpreters (called “terps” for short) means there is at least one less thing wedding photographers usually have to worry about:

I don't crop (interpreters) out — they usually stand so far away from the bride and groom that I don't get them in the frame of my camera. It's not intentional; actually, I've never noticed that before.

Call em' nimble-fingered ninjas; terps are trained to be inconspicuous while perfectly visible to a Deaf guest/audience. Take it from Dustin Pelloni, founder of San Diego-based CLIP Interpreting:

Having interpreted in front of large audiences countless times I can assure any concerned bride that in no way can an interpreter take away from her day. Typically the audience will acknowledge the interpreter, perhaps be engaged for 30 seconds to a minute, and then completely forget they exist.

6. Signing strippers!

A good ol' raucous marital send-off ain't just for the hearing. But most strip clubs are dark, noisy places. Not an ideal spot for speech reading, especially if a dancer sidles up to a someone, whispering into their confused ear.

If you're lucky enough to live in a city with Deaf-friendly strip clubs or adult entertainment venues, bachelor/bachelorette party planning is a whole lot easier. Check out the unabashed review of Rochester, NY's Klassy Kat Tavern on DeafFriendly.

You also just might find a dancer who, coincidentally, has taken a few years of sign language. The non-invasive approach: Email a local pole dancing instructor. They are well-connected to many dancers and can make friendly referrals.

Can't find one? Consider utilizing an interpreter for the party. Just keep one thing in mind…

7. Sober terps (who aren't designated drivers)

The interpreter is signing “applause.”

Your interpreter(s) invest lots of time with your schedules, scripts, and pre-wedding events. Low blood sugar and sign language don't jive, so it makes sense to offer them meals and drinks.

Want to toast your wonderful terps? Hold the open bar invitation, says the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf's Code of Professional Conduct (CPC): Interpreters should refrain from using mind-altering substances before or during the performance of duties.

What if an interpreter friend who's bartering his/her services as a wedding gift? CLIP Interpreting's code also states that interpreters should “render pro bono services in a fair and reasonable manner.”

Hint: Wickedly yummy virgin margaritas exist.

8. Waving the white napkins

What's up with those white linen napkins that Deaf wedding guests twirl in the air? It's a Deaf-friendly alternative to clinking forks on wine glasses to signal that it's time for the newly-wedded couple to smooch.

How this quirky custom came to being, we have no idea (same for the soup cans tied to car bumpers). We just know it's 100% effective — when required to hold a napkin, a Deaf person is less likely to be distracted if s/he can't sign with both hands.

Be sure to check out this post for more ideas: Accommodating Deaf wedding guests

Comments on Waving the white napkin, and 7 other things you see at Deaf weddings

  1. Just wanted to point out for those people who don’t know anything about Deaf culture that you should not be using the term ‘deafies.’ It’s analogous to the “n-word” or ‘slut’- it can be a casual, self-deprecating term between close friends but is hugely offensive to be labelled as such by an acquaintance.

    • Kate, I’m a little unclear on who you’re directing this comment to. If you’re just trying to let our hearing readers know that should not use the term “deafies,” then I’m totally with you. Like many reclaimed cultural colloquialisms, it can be inappropriate for someone outside the community to use it without fully understanding what they’re saying.

      But if you’re saying “you should not be using it” as in “you the author/editors should not have the term ‘deafies’ in this article,” then I do want to note that the post was written by a member of the Deaf community, and that we always support our authors self-identifying in whatever ways they choose.

      • It was for hearing readers! I did note that the author is deaf, just wanted to clarify for those people that aren’t familiar with Deaf culture that a Deaf/deaf person writing it is one thing, someone from outside the community using it is not a great idea 🙂
        One, saves hurt feelings. Two, nobody wants to wind up with a name sign referring to their rudeness or stupidity!

  2. This is so cool. Thank’s for sharing. I love getting glimpses into the Deaf culture. I nearly minored in sign language in college. Every chance I get, I love to learn more about the culture. Never have I seen a wedding though. I would have loved to have been there. My sign language is a little rusty though, and it would have been hard to sign and take photos at the same time.

  3. Here’s a thought to add to your list:
    Hire a Reverend that happens to be Deaf to conduct your ceremony!
    Eliminates the need for an interpreter.

    Better yet, come to Hawaii, and I’ll do it!

    Rev. Larry Littleton, CDI

  4. Late to the party, but we subtitled all the videos taken for putting up after the wedding, and printed the vows and official stuff for friends before the wedding too. Subtitling came in handy for the loud wind that obstructed voices anyway!

  5. Loved reading this article. Great advice! My Deaf sister got married over 40 years ago and included deaf dancers in her ceremony. They performed a beautiful dance to The Lord’s Prayer and it was breathtaking. She had just graduated from Gallaudet and got married in D.C. , so finding deaf entertainers was not difficult.

  6. this was a great read! my soon to be hubby is deaf so there are some good tips i can use for our wedding i didnt think about.(the napkin instead of glass clinkling)

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