7 Deaf wedding traditions – Waving the white napkin and more!

Guest post by Aimee Chou
 | Photography by Tate Tullier Photography

Let's talk about Deaf wedding traditions that make weddings more awesome for Deaf or hard-of-hearing guests. “Here Comes the Bride” was 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 traditions 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 Deaf weddings and 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 wedding traditions 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 of her wedding venue 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 have knowledge of ASL. Yay for vendors who speak ASL!
  • For their first 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 community 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 your 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. Find wedding ASL “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 American 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 wedding vows on 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. What does waving the white napkin mean?

So, 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. It creates a really special moment that can even create a viral video!

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

Meet your new BFF wedding vendor

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