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Associated Press/Photo by Mark Humphrey

Sounds of silence

Language | With only one in 100 a regular church participant, are churches deaf to the needs of the hearing impaired?

Issue: "New faces of New Orleans," Aug. 15, 2009

WASHINGTON-In northeast Washington, D.C., some sidewalks will soon be wider, and buildings will have rounded corners. Reflective glass will help show what's coming on the street. The new street architecture is part of an effort to make streets friendly to those who can't hear.

Washington is home to the world's first and only university exclusively for the deaf, Gallaudet University, with around 1,000 undergraduate students. In coffee shops and on streets around the urban campus, sign language is as common a sight as people talking on their mobile phones. But in past years the college community isolated itself from the city, with iron fences defining the school's borders.

Now Gallaudet is opening up, building housing, offices, retail stores and restaurants around its campus, which looks like many others-green quads, classroom buildings-but is usually blanketed in silence. Friends sign jokes to each other. Students stroll by without the college fashion accessory, an iPod. When a car drives by, blasting dance music, no one looks up. (Gallaudet's football team was the first to develop the huddle in the 1920s so other deaf teams wouldn't see the signs for upcoming plays.)

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Some deaf students are integrating in mainstream universities, with the help of cochlear implants. The implants, usually surgically placed early in life, allow the deaf to grow up essentially hearing. Some in the past condemned the implants, saying that children receiving them had no choice of whether they would be in the deaf or hearing language groups. But a 2007 study by the Ear Foundation showed many young people who have had the implants for at least seven years embracing the invention. They said implants, rather than excluding them from one language group or another, allow them to participate in both sign language and spoken language.

Cochlear implants, though, are not an instant cure for deafness. The surgery is invasive, the implants do not work on some ears, and they do not grant what most would define as a sense of hearing. Instead, they send signals to the auditory nerve which a deaf person must learn to interpret, and implants can make some deaf people feel removed from deaf culture.

"Deaf people are very proud of who we are. . . . I enjoy being unique and being able to relate to people in a deep level because we understand what being deaf feels like," says Gallaudet student Alex Abenchuchan, who also serves as the interim preacher for the deaf service in the Fairfax Church of Christ in Fairfax, Va., outside of Washington.

About one in 1,000 people is deaf-but the deaf are often invisible to those in mainstream churches. Only one in 100 deaf people regularly participates in church, and deaf communities around the world are typically the last to receive the gospel in any culture.

The century-old St. Ann's Church in New York was one of the first churches for the deaf in the United States. Its original building doesn't have a bell tower, because its parishioners couldn't hear the peals. But the congregation has shrunk in recent years. Now meeting in another church building, St. Ann's these days has 20 attendees at most.

The complete Bible has not been translated into any sign language anywhere in the world. Some ask: Can't the deaf just read the Bible? They're not blind, right? No, but for those who have never heard spoken words, English is like a foreign language. The deaf live in a separate language sphere and, depending on their upbringing, develop different levels of language.

While the deaf live in a world of physical silence, it is not a world without conversation. In 1960, researcher William Stoke was the first to argue that American Sign Language (ASL) is indeed its own language. His work portrayed deafness as its own culture. The idea began to deter widespread efforts to force the deaf to be hearing by learning to read lips and speak orally.

"The hearing church has not thought about them as a language group but as a handicapped population," said Albert Bickford, a sign language linguistic consultant with Wycliffe Bible Translators, an organization that translates Scripture into the world's languages. ASL wasn't widely considered a language until the 1980s. Now it ranks as a major language group behind English and Spanish.

With 90 percent of deaf children born to hearing parents, language barriers may rise up within families, so parents almost always push for deaf children to integrate into hearing communities. Few parents learn sign language, people working with the deaf say, making it difficult for the deaf to learn to communicate with others who are deaf.

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