Archives For Helen Keller

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.


Resources

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.

For those who share my interest in fonts, you can download a free ASL font at this website. And, for those Down Under, you can find a free font featuring your version of sign language 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.”

There are several sites online where you can type in your own words or phrases using fingerspelling. For example, with either American Sign Language or British Sign Language (BSL).

kellerSome are born deaf. Others lose their hearing due to accident or illness. Still others find our hearing failing us gradually, as it is displaced by the persistent presence of that unwelcome visitor, tinnitus.

As I was pondering the slow decay of my own hearing, I recalled one of C.S. Lewis’ most brilliant insights.

We can ignore even pleasure. But pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world. (The Problem of Pain)

Even as I am concerned about the inevitable decline of my hearing—and more so, my vision—I try to conscientiously follow my wife’s guidance about vitamins and behaviors that will keep these senses around as long as possible.

At the same time, being a realist, I have decided to disengage my emotions from the matter as much as I am able, and simply accept the unavoidable. In fact, I have learned to enjoy some of the inaccuracies of hearing that I more and more often experience.

Hardly a day passes when I do not get a good laugh out of something I misheard. What I mean is that my brain translates the garbled sounds into actual words that constitute some sense that is in reality nonsensical. It hasn’t cause any problems yet, so I just smile or chuckle. If the mishearing is especially humorous, I sometimes share it with my family.

Recently, I smiled when my pastor went on about how great “Lutheran circuses” are, and how important it was that we invite others to attend our “Lutheran worship circuses” (services). That substitution was easy to recognize; it’s far funnier when I mishear something and what I think they said makes an odd sense that could almost be true . . . but is actually ludicrous.

I don’t share my personal way of dealing with the weakening of my sense of hearing with the intention of belittling the seriousness of a cross many have to bear as their lives are detrimentally impacted by these afflictions.

The Original Plan

Certainly, the impairment of any of the senses God has given us is cause for sadness. After all, when our first parents were created, their senses of sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste were undiminished. That’s the way that the Lord intended for us to enjoy the rest of his creation.

Actually, some people argue that there are seven senses, adding two that do make sense:

Vestibular – the sense of balance, perceiving our body in relationship to gravity and movement (equilibrioception)

Proprioception – the sense of the relative position of different parts of the body, particularly as it pertains to movement (kinesthesia)

Another source declares there are nine senses, adding to the palette

Thermoception – the sensation of the presence or absence of heat

Nociception – “nonconscious perception of nerve or tissue damage”

I personally imagine that when “the day of the Lord” arrives, and we witness the restoration of a new heaven and a new earth, that our restored bodies* will possess a myriad of other senses we are not even capable of fathoming at this present moment.

Yes, it is a tragedy when people have to live with their senses crippled. This is especially true when it is the young who are afflicted. To be born without sight or hearing rightly seems like a curse to many. The testimony of Helen Keller, who actually lost her vision and hearing at the age of nineteen months, illustrates how the human spirit is capable of transcending even these severe limitations.**

In 1952, C.S. Lewis wrote a letter to a young teacher at the Manchester Royal School for the Deaf.

The work you are engaged in is a magnificent one (much in my mind because, as it falls out, I’ve just been reading Helen Keller’s book): hard, no doubt, but you can never be attacked by the suspicion that it is not worth doing. There are jolly few professions of which we can say that.

The translation of great stories into a limited vocabulary will, incidentally, be a wonderful discipline: you will learn a lot about thought and language in general before you are done. I hope you will sometimes let me know how you get on. God bless you.

In writing this column I learned something of which I had been unaware. Keller was also a poet.

And, while I’m a poor judge of verse, I found my brief exploration of hers to be moving. However, here is a review from The New York Times which declares, “Modern psychology cannot account for Miss Keller nor explain the psychic sense by which she apprehends the minutest phases of a beauty she has never witnessed.”

You can download a copy of the book The Song of the Stone Wallhere.

Across the meadow, by the ancient pines,

Where I, the child of life that lived that spring,

Drink in the fragrances of the young year,

The field-wall meets one grimly squared and straight

Beyond it rise the old tombs, gray and restful,

And the upright slates record the generations.

Stiffly aslant before the northern blasts.

Like the steadfast, angular beliefs

Of those whom they commemorate, the head-stones stand,

Cemented deep with moss and invisible roots.

The rude inscriptions charged with faith and love,

Graceless as Death himself, yet sweet as Death,

Are half erased by the impartial storms.

As children lisping words which move to laughter

Are themselves poems of unconscious melody,

So the old gravestones with their crabbed muse

Are beautiful for their halting words of faith,

Their groping love that had no gift of song.

But all the broken tragedy of life

And all the yearning mystery of death

Are celebrated in sweet epitaphs of vines and violets.

Helen Keller’s life is a witness to the fact that God can intervene in our brokenness and make us whole. It is also a foretaste of that complete restoration that awaits disciples of Jesus on the Last Day.

And one more thing her life proves is the truth of C.S. Lewis’ insight that in our suffering we become more attuned to our need, and God “shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”

_____

The image at the top of the page shows Helen Keller as she looked on the day of her graduation from college.

* This transition from these fragile and perishing bodies to the new is described here. And, here’s a link to a readable essay on the subject of the resurrected or new body Christians are promised.

** Helen Keller found hope in the good news of Jesus Christ, albeit through the extremely peculiar teachings of the philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg. Helen Keller’s book My Religion is available for free download here.