Many Christians unwittingly overlook the world’s third-largest unreached people group, many of whom live in the United States. Although this group shares many similarities with the rest of us, their culture and language differ significantly from ours.
Although natural-born citizens, Americans who are deaf enjoy little access to the gospel. The US Census Bureau estimates that 13 percent of the US population has some degree of hearing loss, ranging from slight hearing impairment to profound deafness. That’s one out of every eight Americans.
American Sign Language
“Deaf” with a capital D refers to the people group that communicates via sign language. Deaf people hold a set of beliefs about themselves and how they connect to the larger society, and their unique culture distinguishes them from hearing people. Just as we capitalize “Hispanic” or “African American,” we capitalize “Deaf” to indicate their distinct culture. Lowercase “deaf” is an adjective that describes people who partially or completely lack the sense of hearing.
Deaf culture is intimately linked to the use of American Sign Language (ASL). If a deaf person uses ASL as her primary means of communication, the Deaf embrace her as “Deaf.” If a deaf person chooses not to use ASL, the community perceives him as “hearing-minded,” behaving as a hearing person would.
Because ASL is a cultural distinctive for the Deaf, Christians should understand some basic rules about the language. First, researchers have established that using ASL triggers the same portions of the brain as spoken languages. ASL is not simply coded English but has its own syntax. For example, instead of signing, “The boy goes to the store,” the Deaf will sign, “Store boy goes.” Just as languages evolve from complex to simple, so do signs. Two-handed signs often evolve to one-handed signs. Signs requiring multiple movements soon reduce to one movement.
Second, Deaf people in other countries use their own distinct sign language. A Deaf person in France, for example, uses French Sign Language, a completely separate language from ASL. A Peruvian uses a different sign language from a Mexican. Sometimes, two distinct sign languages emerge from one spoken language. The signs in northern Spain, for example, differ from those in southern Spain.
More than 90 percent of Deaf children have hearing parents. Typically, hearing family members do not learn ASL. By default, the responsibility to communicate falls on the Deaf person. He or she must lip-read and gesture, or write back and forth and read. But reading doesn’t always come easy for a child with profound hearing loss. In order to read, he or she must learn the mapping between the spoken language and printed words. A Deaf child does not have access to phonological code, and many don’t know the spoken language well enough to communicate effectively.
So this burden quickly acts like a muzzle, and conversations with family members turn superficial and brief. But conversation with other Deaf penetrates deeper territory. Since no barriers hinder communication, Deaf people often feel closer to their Deaf friends than to their hearing family. They love participating in Deaf events where they can meet new Deaf people and stay informed about the Deaf community. They will remain loyal to other Deaf for the rest of their lives.
A Distinct People Group
Once we recognize the Deaf as a distinct people group, we understand that the Great Commission includes them as much as it does any nationality. Before ascending into heaven, Jesus left his followers with one charge—multiply (Matt 28:18–20).
When we wear our twenty-first-century ears, we hear “nation” and think “country.” Matthew’s readers, however, had a different idea of “nation” from ours. In fact, according to the standard biblical Greek lexicon, the Greek word for “nation” most often refers to “a body of persons united by kinship, culture, and common traditions.” Using this definition, clearly the Deaf count as a “nation.” If Christ’s command extended to Matthew’s readers, it also extends to us.
When two cultures converge, misunderstandings will occur. Loving people well—especially across cultures—also takes time. But we can all take small steps toward fulfilling the Great Commission among the Deaf, and we can start by approaching them with humility, a willingness to learn from them, and the flexibility to adapt our outreach methods.
By Sarita Fowler (ThM, 2014). Used with permission.