There are many misunderstandings surrounding Deaf culture.
Click on any of the misunderstandings below to read more.
This is a common misunderstanding. Braille is for blind people; Deaf people do not need braille in order to read.
In fact, the level of reading for Deaf people varies very widely. What is it like to be Deaf? If you are a hearing person, can you imagine what it would be like if you lost your hearing right now? How would you access information? Probably by reading; books, newspapers, the Internet, etc. But you learned to read English by hearing it before you learned to read it. You were fluent in the language by the time you began to read.
For Deaf people, the experience is very different. Many Deaf people (especially in third world countries) do not have much exposure to language prior to entering school, which makes learning to read much more difficult. This is not to say that Deaf people cannot read. Some Deaf people are proficient at reading. But a majority of the Deaf worldwide are functionally illiterate, and the quickest way to reach them with the gospel is not to teach them to read, but instead to translate Scripture into their heart language – sign language.
In fact, survey work done through organizations like SIL International has uncovered at least 135 sign languages in the world, and it is estimated that there are over 350 sign languages total.
You might ask, “Why isn’t there just one? Why don’t they just pick one or standardize it?” But the same question could be asked about spoken languages. Why isn’t there just one spoken/written language? In part, God has created us in diversity, and our different languages add to our differences in culture and experience.
Statistics for the Deaf are incredibly difficult, largely because the number of people in a given country who identify primarily with the Deaf community and use a sign language as their first (or heart) language are generally not counted. Government censuses don’t ask that in many countries; they may ask if one has some type of hearing impairment, but that gives you a whole lot of other people who are not part of the Deaf community, like someone who may be hard of hearing (but not deaf). National Deaf associations can tell you how many members they have, but many Deaf people do not join the national association.
The many children who are experiencing delayed complete access to any language because of cochlear implants and mainstreaming are another example of people who may be misrepresented in an attempt to count the Deaf… they may not identify a sign language as their primary language until later in life, but they may be best communicated with through a sign language as well. It’s just really tough to count.
Experts estimate that the number of Deaf range between 35 and 72 million throughout the world. Whatever the number, the Deaf are perhaps the largest unreached people group left in our world today. Scripture has been translated and communicated to the hearing for many centuries, but it’s only been in the past 30 years that there has been any concerted effort made to reach the Deaf with the Gospel as a culture. NOW is their time!
90% of Deaf people are born into Hearing families (both parents are hearing). Of these, over 85% of those parents will choose not to learn sign language or to sign with their Deaf child. (The numbers are much higher in third-world countries or rural areas.) This creates a lot of frustration in communication between child and parents. Many times Deaf children will struggle to follow conversations in their family, and when they ask their parents, the parents will be unable to communicate the concept well, so they will often say, “Don’t worry, it’s not important.” If you hear this often enough, you start to believe that you’re not important. This also causes Deaf children to miss out on everyday information that Hearing children typically pick up just by overhearing conversations.
This dysfunctionality is something that our “2-by-2” Deaf teams often have to work through with Deaf adults. Many Deaf adults around the world have never learned what a healthy marriage and family life should look like, and they can carry these wrong ideas into their own marriages and parenting. Thus, an important piece of supporting strong families in the Deaf community is teaching married couples about God’s design for their marriage and for them as parents.
In fact, only about 30-40% of speech is visible on the lips. It is a bit like taking a paragraph and blacking out half of the words. You can get the gist of what is being said, especially if you have context, but if the conversation suddenly switches, it is difficult for a Deaf person, even one who reads lips well, to follow what is being said.
Two issues arise here. The first involves how Deaf people learn and process information. In our experience, Deaf people prefer to learn stories and information chronologically – ordered according to time. Hearing pastors often jump around to different passages of Scripture to illustrate a point (and intersperse some stories from their own lives). All of this is typically done without much context for the verses. This makes the job of an interpreter very difficult if they want to provide context for the passages that are being preached on. If the Deaf audience does not have a strong Biblical survey to know the order and context of the stories in the Bible, it is easy for people to get lost.
The second issue involves Deaf people ministering in the church. A church interpreter may give them partial access to the sermon on Sunday. But where do they minister as members of Christ’s body? Deaf people have gifts and skills given by God to be used to minister to the body (Eph. 4:11-15), but they are usually prevented from doing so by the language barrier. They cannot be elders, deacons, ushers, Sunday school teachers, or nursery workers if they can’t communicate well in a spoken language.
It is much more effective to reach Deaf with the gospel if they are reached by other Deaf Christians in a Deaf-led setting, worshiping Jesus in a “Deaf” way, using their gifts to serve one another without hindrances due to language.