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:

tatetullierphotography2 alternative wedding ideas from Offbeat Wed (formerly Offbeat Bride)
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)

tatetullierphotography1 alternative wedding ideas from Offbeat Wed (formerly Offbeat Bride)
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

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

  1. OMG, this just gave me the best idea ever. My grandmother is super super hard of hearing, and she misses out of everything. Oftentimes I find myself at the other end of the table watching her, sad, because I know she isn’t able to follow the conversation. So I have just decided to have a few special print outs of the entire ceremony for the few that I know who are hard of hearing. My grandma doesn’t know sign language (don’t you dare say anything about her being hard of hearing when she is around) but this totally made me think about her and how sad she would be if she couldn’t hear everything.

    • Just remember to make the print big enough for her to read! This was an issue at my friend’s wedding. She had things printed out for her grandfather who is in denial about how much he misses, but he couldn’t read most of it because it was too small for his 86 year old eyes. 🙂

  2. Aww, I think I’m going to borrow the napkin bit for our reception. I find the clinking thing to be highly annoying, but I know people are going to want to “make us kiss” during dinner. This seems to be a classier, quieter idea. My aunt wears hearing aids and my dad is deaf in one ear, so keeping the noise levels down is a must.

  3. Thanks for this great article! It’s a good reminder to remember the accessibility needs of all your guests.

    p.s. I live about 2 miles from the Klassy Kat Tavern.

  4. This article was wonderful! I’m hard of hearing from a hearing family, and communicate primarily through spoken English. I was previously and interpreting student, however, and am active in my local Deaf community. I would like to add a few things.

    Provide your interpreter with as much written material about the wedding as far beforehand as possible. Vows, readings, specific religious context, as much as possible! It is also crucial they attend the rehearsal. Not just for them, but for the church, as well. I swear I spent half my rehearsal with the church-appointed planner and the interpreter arranging entrances, exits, accessible seating and the like. It was the first time my church had had an interpreted wedding!

    After all this, and swapping spots with my partner for the procession (so he would be on my “good side”) you’d think I’d have gotten all the accommodations I needed. But I totally forgot to talk to the priest about where he was standing during our vows! We did the “repeat after me” style….and the priest ended up on my deaf side. He was so quiet I had to turn to look at him to hear, instead of being able to focus on my beloved during one of the most important parts of the ceremony. I don’t know how I missed it during the rehearsal, and it remains to this day a spot of awful regret.

  5. A reminder: if you do hand out copious numbers of latex balloons, please try to find out if there are any guests with latex allergies! One or two balloons may not be dangerous, but an entire dance floor of them would mean they might not be able to dance at all for fear of accidentally brushing against one.

  6. My mother is deaf, and the things I did for her were to give her a printed breakdown of how the reception was going to go. I wrote it as I would speak to her so she could follow along. I also sat her closer to my table, and on her “good side” so when I spoke to her she could see and hear me.

    I would find it fascinating to attend a deaf wedding. I think sign language is beautiful to watch. I wish there were more resources here to learn the language, but for now the internet is teaching me.

  7. Last year was full of planning for our daughter and her now husband’s deaf wedding. Having guests both hearing and deaf of about a 40/60 split and the majority of the bridal party being deaf with our daughter and her future husband’s help I think our joint efforts pulled of the best wedding possible. We made streamers on little wooden sticks in the wedding colors (bride didn’t want dirty napkins flinging food).

    We hired 4 top rated interpreters all interviewed by the bride and groom to insure the signing quality appropriate for the deaf attendees. An interpreter for the bride (female) and a male for the groom was assigned to each so whenever they signed their interpreter spoke. This way the hearing people, most who had never been at a deaf wedding didn’t get confused. We had music but is was signed. Many tears during the music because the interpreters truly did the music justice. Songs were picked appropriate to the couple, not churchy except for the brides entrance which had no words and the grooms entrance. Both were walked in by their parents. We did visual parts to the ceremony instead of the unity candle we did a sand ceremony.

    The reception was a blast even the DJ had fun, we played all those tacky songs everyone knew the steps to from the Mexican Hat Dance, Electric Slide, etc. Many of our guests were hard of hearing and the minute they knew a song they started signing the words. We kept center pieces to one candle with greenery laid on the table. We made the napkin rings and the table names were special to the couple as they are used the name of mountains they had skied/boarded since being together. Being married in Colorado they were able to have a deaf friend officiate which added to the special day for them.

    Our location could hold only round tables so the deaf guests were sat at round table in clear view of interpreters and to even out the room the parents tables were round also. Hearing parents need to understand it is not their wedding but they can accommodate their hearing guests by using a bi/bi strategy. Good luck to all those planning a wedding like ours.

  8. I am super psyched that you posted this piece! My parents are Deaf and I am a certified sign language Interpreter. Many of these Deaf culture elements will be included in my upcoming September 28th wedding. I have it set up similar to what Judy mentions in the previous post. Its great to see that Deaf culture is being recognized on a site like this! Kudos!

  9. 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!

  10. 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.

  11. 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

  12. 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!

  13. 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.

  14. 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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