An article by Eddy Portnoy in Tablet documents "how Jewish tradition marginalized the deaf,"from Talmudic halacha to 19th century responsa to Jewish communities in America and Europe in the 20th Century. This piece is well worth reading, and this topic well worth revisiting.
Personally, I grew up at a synagogue with occasional simultaneous ASL translation of the liturgy, but that was only sporadic, and probably not representative of most shuls. It was not, either, I imagine, the result of a community decision-making process that recognized the need and made a programmatic change. More likely, the liturgically informed and ASL-savvy congregant simply volunteered ad hoc.
The April BJPA newsletter focused on special needs in the Jewish community, and in that newsletter we linked to "Accepting the Challenge: How a Jewish Community Hears and Shares the Needs of Jewish Deaf Members." The authors note that intermarriage rates are higher among the Jewish deaf community than among the Jewish community as a whole. Of course, the responsibility to integrate accessibility into our Jewish communities should not derive from demographic calculation or Jewish continuity concerns, but rather from the inherent dignity of all human beings as human beings, and of all Jews as members of our people. Still, the colder-hearted and continuity-minded should keep the intermarriage figure in mind. And who could be surprised at it with such a dearth of accessibility?
Sheryl Cooper makes another critical point in her article "Jewish and Deaf: One Microculture or Two?": deaf culture is usually transmitted outside the family home -- in educational environments, with deaf peers. Jewish culture, by contrast, is usually transmitted by the family. But since the families of deaf Jews are often not deaf, they are unable to model a lifestyle that successfully combines deafness and Jewishness the way deaf peers can model general deaf culture. In a sense, this barrier between deaf and hearing in both the Jewish home and in external Jewish communal life creates a double-exclusion, and a double unlikelihood that deaf Jews will find Jewish identity and community attractive.
How can we seek remedies to our institutional problems of exclusion? The BJPA contains many articles on disability issues, not all of them contemporary. Perhaps we should start with the work of the Society of the Welfare of the Jewish Deaf, as described in 1914 by A.J. Amateau in "The Work with the Jewish Deaf." No matter which voices from the past we consult, however, we must remember in the present that the most important leaders in efforts to confront these issues ought to be deaf Jews themselves.