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.)
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.
While many of the deaf feel comfortable functioning in the hearing world, many also feel a cultural divide, a chasm of silence that the deaf tend to feel more profoundly than do those with hearing.
"Sometimes when I am at a cash -register or if I am trying to talk with a McDonald's employee, they get scared of deaf people and sometimes give us a hard time," says Gallaudet's Abenchuchan: "Sometimes, it can become very lonely if there is a group of hearing people and no one in the group knows sign language. You are around people, but you are -completely alone."
Deaf and hearing cultures can have difficulty mixing, unlike other cultures, because the deaf have one characteristic that keeps them from fully assimilating. "The deaf can never learn to hear," Rebecca Hinckley says simply. She has worked in deaf ministry for almost 30 years. She and her husband David are part of Fairfax Church of Christ's deaf congregation, though they themselves are not deaf.
Integration of the deaf in hearing churches can be hard too, though some have visions of the two worlds worshipping together. The National Community Church in Washington has ASL interpreters in two of its services, and pastor Jason Yost hopes the church can begin a campus ministry at Gallaudet: "We want to bridge the gap. We're all created in the image of God. We need to come together, whether hearing impaired or blind or a different race. I hope we're not naïve in thinking that."
Some longtime deaf ministry workers say incorporating the deaf in hearing worship tends to take away from their ability to worship and be leaders in the Christian community. Abenchuchan, who leads a deaf service separate from Fairfax Church of Christ's main hearing service, says that integrating the deaf into hearing churches is like trying to integrate German-speaking and Spanish-speaking congregations.
ASL interpretation in hearing services may further isolate the deaf. Deaf members sit together, close to see the interpreter, and few hearing members talk to them afterward. Without any ownership of the ministry-interpreters are always hearing-the deaf generally leave the church if the interpreter leaves.
Furthermore, interpretation is not very effective in communicating the gospel. Deaf culture lives on the visual, and hearing church services with interpreters rarely adjust to focus on the visual elements of worship.
"Deaf people like stories, they're more like an oral people," says Geoffrey Hunt, a sign language translation coordinator for Wycliffe Bible Translators. He's quick to say he doesn't speak for all deaf people, but from his general experience: "They might go to a church with an interpreter and not know for years and years what is being preached."
LeeAnn Carrera, who is deaf, runs the Baptist campus ministry at Gallaudet. She urges ministries to teach the Bible chronologically, from Genesis to Revelation, and notes that stories tell the gospel better than a barrage of words like "sanctified," which has no equivalent in sign language. The story of Jesus healing a deaf man in Mark 7: 31-37 resonates deeply for some in deaf culture, showing that Jesus' message reaches everyone.
"Jesus is following deaf culture," says Stuart Thiessen, who is deaf and works in deaf ministry: In the account, Jesus takes the deaf man away from the crowds-that's vital for communication-and then Jesus lets the man know what He is about to do by touching his mouth and his ears, looking up to heaven, and then healing him, giving him hearing and speech.
Thiessen, now 38, had a hard time hearing by the time he turned 4: "I just thought I was a broken hearing person." By the time he turned 18 he was completely deaf. He says he began to realize that deafness wasn't just a flaw in his body but was important to his identity, like being Irish or Hispanic. Since he wasn't born deaf, he learned more easily to lip-read and speak and is now getting a master's degree from the University of North Dakota.
Thiessen married a hearing woman and now has two children, both hearing. He has helped plant deaf churches and is working as a translation consultant with DOOR International Ministry, a deaf-run organization. His ability to communicate both within and without the deaf community allows him to be a bridge between the two worlds, something a hearing person with ASL training can't do.
But with no full ASL translations of the Bible, it's hard for Thiessen to teach a deaf congregation. One translation of the New Testament into ASL exists: Council Bluff Deaf Missions in Iowa signed the New Testament onto DVD, a method Wycliffe translators agree is more effective than sign writing, a print version of visual signs. The process began over 23 years ago and translators are partway through a translation of the Old Testament.
An arm of Wycliffe in Spain is experimenting with Bible translation into sign animation, which allows easier video editing and makes the delivery of the text more neutral. When a live person is signing the Bible on a DVD, those watching may read the person's personality into the text. Animation removes those preconceptions-though Wycliffe's Bickford explains that the process of animating one verse may take eight hours. Also, signers in places like India and China are nervous about being videotaped translating the Bible for fear of reprisals from extremists.
Language can divide the deaf not just from the Bible but from the church itself. Any difficulty deaf people have with English, Thiessen says, often causes hearing people to think that the deaf have lower intelligence: Churches often treat the deaf as "someone less-than," and then deaf resentment of churches blossoms.
Feeling cut off from the church, some deaf people have a hard time believing that salvation can belong to them, too. Thiessen is among the 1 percent of deaf people with regular church participation, but he notes that some among the deaf think "the church is for hearing people."
Thiessen reflects, "Prayer for me was the hardest. I think it might be the same for every deaf person. We are so dependent on our eyes, and we can't see God. When deaf people talk to each other, we have to be locked eye to eye. When I talk with God, I can't see His eyes."
Thiessen recommends that "hearing church" members learn ASL, preferably from a deaf person, and refrain from patronizing attitudes, instead treating the deaf as equals. Bickford remembers teaching a deaf linguistics course at the University of North Dakota, where four of his 12 students were deaf. One day he taught the course in ASL instead of in spoken English, and had a person translate that for the hearing students.
Building bridges requires resources: a good translator, or better, a deaf pastor and deaf-oriented curriculum and teaching. Some suggest having semi-circular rooms for deaf worship, so signs can be easily seen. These can be costly investments for a small slice of the church population, since few churches with deaf ministries have more than a dozen deaf members.
Yet, as Thiessen says, "The burden will always be on the hearing church to relate with us, because our ears will never be fixed. Hearing people can modify themselves to fit into our world, but we can't modify ourselves to fit into their world."
To understand more about deafness, read Deaf in America: Voices from a Culture, by Carol Padden and Tom Humphries National/internationalministries promoting deaf leadership and deaf churches include: Wycliffe Bible Translators (wycliffe.org); St. Louis (sil.org) `0 DOOR International (doorinternational.com) `0 Deaf Missions and (deafmissions.com).