Do you have any Deaf friends or family members? If so, I cannot think of any more inspiring reason to learn sign language.
Even if you don’t already know someone Deaf, gaining familiarity with American Sign Language (ASL), or one of its British, French, Chinese, Japanese, Arabic, Spanish, Mexican, etc. alternatives – is worthwhile.
According to one major translation and captioning corporation, the use of sign language extends not only throughout nations, but also to a variety of populations.
It’s the main form of communication for the Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing community, but sign language can be useful for other groups of people as well. People with disabilities including Autism, Apraxia of speech, Cerebral Palsy, and Down Syndrome may also find sign language beneficial for communicating.
My wife, a special education teacher, recognized this early in her career. One of her greatest joys came from introducing a deaf, severely autistic teenager to a world where she could communicate for the first time. Although she could see, and learned to read with some comprehension, her transformation through learning ASL called to mind the miracle that was Helen Keller.
Before proceeding, it is helpful to clarify some terminology. According to the National Association of the Deaf website, “we use the lowercase deaf when referring to the audiological condition of not hearing, and the uppercase Deaf when referring to a particular group of deaf people who share a language.”
The members of this group have inherited their sign language, use it as a primary means of communication among themselves, and hold a set of beliefs about themselves and their connection to the larger society.
We distinguish them from, for example, those who find themselves losing their hearing because of illness, trauma or age; although these people share the condition of not hearing, they do not have access to the knowledge, beliefs, and practices that make up the culture of Deaf people.
This is an extremely significant distinction. So, people like me whose progressive hearing loss could conceivably lead to deafness, would not be members of the Deaf community. Unless, I suppose, we were to immerse ourselves in the Deaf (sign) language and culture. Even then, I imagine we would always be recognizable as “immigrants,” rather than native members of the Deaf family.
Another semantic consideration is the obsolete usage of the term “hearing-impaired.” This term is offensive to the Deaf community, and efforts continue to update the language of pertinent laws. The Cogswell Macy Act, which outlines educational rights for the Deaf and the Blind, is currently being revised.
In fact, the National Association for the Deaf is asking everyone to serve as advocates. One small element of the revision will be to “change outdated terminology in current educational law from ‘hearing impaired’ to ‘deaf, hard of hearing, and DeafBlind.’”
Sign language is certainly not limited to spelling out words with individual letters. There are numerous words that have their own sign. A company named Start ASL offers online courses, and they offer video examples of 150 basic ASL words on their website.
One fascinating practice of the Deaf is the way many of them possess a unique “name sign” which identifies them in the community. Very Well Health has a great explanation about the way these names are given.
One aspect of Deaf culture is the use of unique, personal “name signs” as a way to identify someone without fully spelling out their name. . . . These names often reflect the person’s character and are usually devised by someone within the Deaf community.
Some people have a combination of initialized and descriptive name signs, like the first letter of their name that is swirling like a fish for someone who is a swimmer.
If you love a specific animal, like cats, your name sign may be the first letter of your birth name to then sign “cat’s whiskers” on your cheek. If you enjoy birds, your name sign could be the first letter of your birth name combined with the sign for bird.
The name sign given to my wife, Delores, was the letter “d” beside her “smile.” Quite fitting, since she is an extremely compassionate person who is seldom without one.
C.S. Lewis & the Deaf
Obviously, C.S. Lewis encountered a number of people who were deaf or hard of hearing. He mentions some of them in his correspondence. While there are now a “few students with hearing loss at Oxford,” I don’t know what accommodations would have been available during Lewis’ residency.
In “Oxford Student on Being Hearing Impaired at University,” we read “Deaf and hard of hearing students need to speak up at their universities if they want their needs to be taken more seriously and reach their full academic potential.” (Curiously, this 2019 article uses the outdated term “hearing impaired.” Perhaps the British find it less irritating than Americans?)
In 1953, C.S. Lewis responded to a letter from a student who had explained the Gospel to one of her Deaf classmates. She asked “how much of the teaching about Christ” she could present with the Gospel story itself. In his response he begins with a disclaimer about having little knowledge of the Deaf.
It is difficult to one, who, like me, has no experience, to give an opinion of these problems, which, I see, are very intricate. The story about the girl who had reached the age of 16 under Christian teachers without hearing of the Incarnation is an eye-opener.
For ordinary children (I don’t know about the Deaf) I don’t see any advantage in presenting the Gospels without some doctrinal comment. After all, they weren’t written for people who did not know the doctrine, but for converts, already instructed, who now wanted to know a bit more about the life and sayings of the Master.
Shortly before his death he explained to a writer that he had no personal photo to share. In his response, he uses the word “deaf” to explain (or exaggerate) the fact he was hard of hearing.
Sorry, but I’m out of photos. Which is perhaps just as well, for I look awful. Imagine a marsh-wiggle gone fat and red in the face. And deaf and bald. I talk far too loud. I’m so glad you liked the Narnian series.
Humanity’s Universal Deafness
Shifting our view from the physical to the spiritual, we see that all of us truly are Hard-of-Hearing. Christians understand the human inclination toward selfishness and sin as a consequence of “original sin.” We can be rescued from our sinful state, of course, and that is what the doctrine of the atonement is all about.
We’re not discussing theology here, but I say that to explain why deafness and blindness are metaphors in the Scriptures for being unable to hear or see the Truth.
For example, through the Prophet Isaiah, God describes unfaithfulness of his people in the following way.
Hear, you deaf,
and look, you blind, that you may see!
Who is blind but my servant,
or deaf as my messenger whom I send?
Who is blind as my dedicated one,
or blind as the servant of the Lord?
He sees many things, but does not observe them;
his ears are open, but he does not hear. (Isaiah 42:18-20).
When Jesus says “he who has ears to hear, let him hear” (Matthew 11:15) he is saying that we should not be deaf to God’s call. And the deafness he refers to is our conscious choice not to hear God’s words.
It seems to me that most of us are at least slightly hard of hearing when it comes to listening to our Creator. If we weren’t – if we heeded God’s words – this world of ours would be a vastly different place.
C.S. Lewis describes the tragic end of someone who insists on remaining utterly deaf to God.
In The Great Divorce, he describes the withered soul of a person who had resisted every attempt of God to alleviate their suffering and lift them from death, to life.
A damned soul is nearly nothing: it is shrunk, shut up in itself. Good beats upon the damned incessantly as sound waves beat on the ears of the deaf, but they cannot receive it. Their fists are clenched, their teeth are clenched, their eyes fast shut.
First they will not, in the end they cannot, open their hands for gifts, or their mouths for food, or their eyes to see.
No one reading this is at that point. So long as we breathe, we can uncover our spiritually blind eyes and unstop our spiritually dead ears, to receive his words of life. Admitting that we are all sometimes hard of hearing is a good step toward growing in our faith and anticipating the gift of eternal life.
You will find a list of resources below, but before exploring them, there is one more amazing C.S. Lewis connection that needs to be mentioned. In 2018, the Pennsylvania School for the Deaf adapted The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe for the stage in ASL. Pretty amazing! “Narnia’s Latest Adaptation: Sign Language” tells the story and includes a delightful short video featuring several of the performers.
There are a number of interesting and useful resources available for those interested in this subject.
For charts displaying different sign language alphabets, you will find one collection here.
As you can see from the animated graphic above this section an example of the ASL animation generator available at signlanguageforum.com – This one spells “resources.”