Communication and accessibility are basic human rights.
Will you join me in the fight for equality?
Will you join me in the fight for equality?
I have been signing for about 5 years now. I never anticipated sign language would be as important to me as it is today. The first Deaf person I ever met was my cousin. I live in New York and she lives in Virginia, so we don’t see each other often. However, as we grew older, we were able to keep in touch more using technology. Consequently, we grew closer. One day, I asked her if it would be easier for us to communicate if I learned sign language. She said yes. I immediately began teaching myself out of love for her. I had no idea what type of journey I was about to embark on. I had no idea that I would be exposed to such rich language and culture. I pictured myself using sign language only to communicate with my cousin and had no idea it was going to permeate many areas of my life.
It didn’t take long for me to get hooked on ASL. I realized very quickly that ASL wasn’t just a visual version of English. It is its own distinct language with its own grammar and syntax. The grammar even involves facial expressions and body language! How cool is that? Then, I discovered that there is an entire Deaf culture. I learned that deafness is not viewed as a disability in Deaf culture. On the contrary, it’s viewed as something to be proud of; it is viewed as a crucial part of one’s identity. I learned the concept “deaf gain” (see the video link at the end of this piece to learn about deaf gain). I was immediately fascinated with Deaf culture and dedicated just about as much time to learning about Deaf culture as I did to learning ASL. There is so much more to Deaf culture than I can fit into this post, but please know that it is a very rich culture with its own norms, jokes, idioms, expectations, etc.
I was excited when I finally knew enough ASL to communicate better with my cousin. We would sign together and she would help me when I made mistakes and show me new signs (which she still does). It was (and still is) an amazing bonding experience! Our relationship has flourished so much because of ASL. There is just a bond between people who use ASL that is hard to describe.
Soon, I realized that I loved ASL and Deaf culture way too much for its use in my life to be confined to communicating with one person. It became very clear to me that God exposed me to this language for multiple reasons. As I continued to immerse myself in Deaf culture as much as possible, I learned that the Deaf population is highly unreached in terms of ministry. I learned that, in the United States, only 2% of Deaf people consider themselves Christians and that only about 5% will ever have the gospel presented to them in their own language. There just aren’t enough people in ministry that know ASL. I was immediately shocked and knew this was wrong. I knew in this moment that God had placed ASL in my life for multiple reasons, and that one of them was to make a difference in His kingdom. I began to research Deaf ministry and was even more motivated to improve my ASL.
Another misconception I had when I first started learning ASL is that I would use it solely to benefit others, not realizing the benefits available to myself. I learned all about the numerous benefits of ASL for deaf people including earlier language development, better ability to communicate, feeling a sense of community and belonging, higher reading and writing levels, higher likelihood to graduate from high school; the list goes on and on. But, deaf people aren’t the only ones who can benefit from ASL. After all, it’s already been proven that using sign language with hearing babies enables them to communicate before they are able to speak, which decreases frustration and improves speech development. I’ve seen hearing children with special needs use sign language to fulfill their communication needs, sometimes exclusively and sometimes together with English. With all the known benefits of ASL, doesn’t it only make sense that hearing adults can benefit from ASL too?
ASL has become such an important part of who I am. When I realized I was interested in Deaf ministry, I began to learn how to sign worship songs. I realized that, not only did this benefit people who couldn’t hear the music, but it benefitted me because it helped me express my feelings during worship. That is how I realized that ASL helps me express myself. I am an extremely emotional person and I sometimes have a hard time articulating how I’m feeling; this pertains to both positive and negative emotions. I’m also a very visual person; visuals have always helped me learn. There are times when I can express ideas and feelings in ASL that I can’t express the same way in English. ASL is, by nature, a much more expressive language than English. It helps me express myself because I can move around more and I can make more exaggerated facial expressions without it being “weird”. I also have a memory problem. When I sign, it sometimes helps me remember and/or apply things better than when I listen and speak exclusively. People that know me well know that I sometimes accidentally sign while I speak without even realizing it or that I sign to myself in lieu of talking to myself at times. They’re also not surprised when I say: “I need to sign while I say this.” But, when I sign around other hearing people, it’s not just for me; it’s for them too. I know, of course, it’s unrealistic to expect everyone to be proficient in sign language, but what a wonderful world it would be if everyone was at least exposed and knew how to treat deaf people with respect. I sign for the person who has never seen sign language before and asks me “what were you doing with your hands?” I sign for the small children imitating my signs and asking me how to sign words or fingerspell their names. I sign for the people that come up to me and ask me how they can learn sign language.
So, ASL holds a special place in my heart both for the benefits I receive from it and the benefits I see others receive. I’ve built a stronger relationship with my cousin. I can more effectively express my emotions. I have the privilege of teaching other hearing people about ASL and Deaf culture and the privilege of talking with and learning from some pretty awesome deaf people. I can be a part of bridging the communication gap that exists far too often between hearing and deaf people. I am still not completely fluent in ASL, but I am continuing to improve both my expressive and my receptive skills. My ultimate dream is to be completely fluent and fully engaged in Deaf ministry. God willing, that will happen. But, even if it doesn’t, I know I will never lose my love for the Deaf community and for ASL. ASL, and all signed languages, can benefit all different types of people (although, hearing people who use ASL should take the time to learn at least the basics of Deaf culture since the language and the culture correspond so closely). Signed languages should not be viewed as less than spoken languages, as visual aids for spoken languages, or as some sort of last resort for people who don’t benefit from spoken language. Signed languages have so much to offer our world, and the more we spread awareness, share our stories, and expose people to sign language, the more we can all reap those benefits.
Ted Talk: “Navigating Deafness in a Hearing World”
“Can you read my lips?”