However, despite growing Deaf awareness, there are still many misconceptions surrounding Deaf communities and sign languages. These misconceptions don’t just impact society’s interaction with the Deaf. They also affect how well the Church can serve with and reach out to Deaf people in carrying out the Great Commission.
Deaf Bible Society provides free access to sign language Bible translations and enables further sign language Bible translation projects in partnership with other ministries. Beth Gray with Deaf Bible says if we are to be effective witnesses for the Gospel, these are just a few misconceptions that need to be cleared up in the Church about the Deaf.
Misconception 1 – Sign language is universal
Some people mistakenly believe that sign language is a universal language for all Deaf people. But this is not the case.
Gray explains, “Sign languages are a special type of language that are used by Deaf people in countries all around the world. There are about 70 million Deaf people worldwide, according to the World Federation of the Deaf, and there are hundreds of sign languages that are used by these different Deaf communities.”
A Deaf Christian with Asia Pacific Sign Language Development Association illustrates this point well when she writes, “For example, the sign ‘father’ in American Sign Language may be understood as ‘chicken’ in Korean Sign Language or ‘very-big’ in Myanmar Sign Language. ‘Woman’ in Japanese Sign Language has the same handshape as ‘bad’ in Malaysian Sign Language.”
While the exact number of sign languages in the world is still unknown, Deaf Bible commissioned a team about a year ago to compile a list of known sign languages.
Misconception 2 – The sign language in a particular country is similar to the spoken language in that country
When you see a Deaf translator in a church service or at a public event, it’s easy to assume, for example, that the translation from English to American Sign Language is roughly word-for-word.
However, Gray explains, “The interesting thing about these sign languages is that they’re not really the same as the spoken languages that are used in the same country. So for example, here in America, English and American Sign Language have a completely different grammatical structure, have different grammatical features, and it’s not a word-to-word correlation between those two language types. So this the situation of sign languages all over the world that are used by these millions of Deaf people.”
This emphasizes the fact that sign languages and spoken languages, even if they originate in the same country, are totally different languages.
Misconception 3 – If there is a written Bible translation available in a country, then the nation’s Deaf already has access to Scripture
One final misconception Gray addresses is the idea that a written Bible translation gives Deaf people access to Scripture.
While it is true that some Deaf individuals can read the local written language, it is essentially a second language to them. They may have difficulty understanding complex biblical truths without engaging Scripture in sign language — their heart language. And for many other Deaf people around the world, a sign language may even be the only language they understand.
“This has an impact on how we have to see our responsibility as Christians to see the Gospel taken to all language groups, to all people groups. So the understanding of the nature and extent of sign language variation is an essential tool in helping us complete the Great Commission,” says Gray.
“We see all throughout the biblical narrative that God’s heart seems to be for every tribe, tongue, nation, and language to know Him. It seems to be a high priority of God’s that there would be a remnant, a group of people that are following Him from every language group around the world.”
This remnant is talked about in Revelation 7:9 when John the Apostle wrote, “After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands.” (NIV)
Every language group will be represented before the throne of God. And that includes those whose heart language is a sign language; that includes the Deaf.
Reaching the Deaf for the Great Commission
According to Deaf Bible, the vast majority of the Deaf are unreached with the Gospel. As an important community for the Great Commission, Christians and ministries like Deaf Bible are focusing their efforts to reach all Deaf people groups for Christ.
Please pray for sign language Scripture translation efforts to get the needed funding and personnel. Pray for the teams working on Bible translations in sign languages to be spiritually encouraged, especially since Satan may be working to thwart their ministry. Ask God to reveal Himself to unreached Deaf people groups and draw out a remnant for His Kingdom.
You can also support Deaf Bible Society’s ministry! Just $47 reaches 25 Deaf people in local Deaf Bible Together groups.
(Header photo courtesy of daveynin via Flickr under Creative Commons: https://goo.gl/rmbU2D)