When our children were young we lived in a resort community for a couple of years. I was fortunate to find employment in the local school district, working in a combined 5-6 classroom. When I was also assigned to lunch duty, I was given a crash course in American Sign Language (ASL), because our school was the designated “mainstream” school for children with disabilities.
I say “mainstream” in quotes because the children went to our school, but they were in separate classes. They weren’t really integrated into regular classes. But I found ASL fascinating, and loved the opportunity to learn and use it. It wasn’t all glamour – the first phrase I learned was “Sit down now and stay there,” very useful in the cafeteria. The second was “Go outside and play.” But I did learn more, and because I had some modicum of ASL I got to go on field trips with the deaf and hard-of-hearing class and get to know them and interact with them.
I will never forget some my charges. One boy came to use from the Philippines. At that time deaf children were not educated in the Philippines, so everything was new to him. He made up signs. When we taught him the sign for tree, one arm held upright with the hand spread out, he invented “dead tree,” the arm crashing down 90 degrees. When we taught him the sign for fish, he taught us a fish being caught, literally a hook in the mouth. He would laugh with delight as we copied his new “signs.” Then there was the darling freckle-faced little boy who always took his hearing aids out during lunch. More than once I had to look for them in the garbage because he forgot to put them back in. Nothing like looking for little hearing aids in a trash can full of beanie-weenies!
But I always wondered why everyone wasn’t taught ASL. Hearing children were certainly eager to learn. I was given the gift of Spanish beginning in the third grade. My very wise school district grew even wiser and began teaching everyone to read, write and speak Spanish starting in Kindergarten. Languages are so easy when we are young. My daughter’s preschool started teaching her signs at the same time I was learning, and it was very handy that we had this form of communication, especially when we moved to our next home many miles away. I could sign to her in the car ahead of me, and she could pass messages on to her Daddy. Very convenient.
According to the National Institute of Health, one in eight people over the age of 12 has hearing loss in both ears. That’s 13 percent. Two to three of every 1,000 children are born with a detectable hearing loss in one or both ears. More than 90 percent of deaf children are born to hearing parents. I’ve always thought it was unfair that we are not taught ASL. When I met deaf people and could “speak” with them, they were delighted to meet a hearing person who had taken the trouble to “learn their language.”
There is a movement to encourage the deaf to receive cochlear implants, but this is not the same as “hearing” as we do. My friends who have received them report difficulties in differentiating between sounds, having their sense of taste affected, and having problems with static electricity. But I wonder if we are encouraging the deaf to be more “like us” instead of making the effort to reach out to them by learning their language?
I think of the story in Mark where four friends carried their paralyzed friend to Jesus to be cured. When they found they couldn’t bring him into the house in the usual way, they made a hole in the roof to lower him down. If these friends could make that kind of effort, can’t we learn to use our hands, minds and hearts to speak to our deaf friends and neighbors?
“. . .but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the message of the gospel, even so we speak, not to please mortals, but to please God who tests our hearts.” 1 Thessalonians 2:4
Dear God, Help us to bridge the gaps between us. Help us to learn to speak to each other, and listen to each other, and seek to understand each other Remind us that we are all your children, and all perfect in your eyes. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.