Posted by: William | December 7, 2007

The Ladder and the Bridge

            I had a conversation last night with a new friend of mine. She’s in school for sign language to become a certified interpreter. We got to talking about the nature of sign language and the challenges of working with the deaf. She said that for deaf people, English is their second language. That makes sense. Then she said that when a deaf person graduates it is generally at a fourth grade reading level. This, at first, perplexed me. I guess I have always thought of a deaf person as just a “regular” person, but with a disability that keeps them from being able to hear. But surely they’d be able to read; probably better than a hearing person, I’d imagine! But my new friend corrected me on this. For most deaf people, sign language is their first language and English is their second. I imagine it would be difficult to turn English words into things that make sense if you’ve never heard them spoken. I mean, when I look at a word, on some level I hear the word spoken in my head. But if an English written word is not only translated into something intelligible in our head, but also an intelligible sound, then that is a whole plane of understanding that a deaf person is unlikely to grasp.

            So as we were talking, my own prejudice seemed to surface. I must, on some level, have thought of a deaf person as somehow like an incomplete person. Like, I am complete and they, a notch below me, are only nearly complete. I do not think this is how the Lord would have me view this set of people that He has designed in this way. It is not that being deaf is inherently challenging, but rather living in a hearing world and being deaf is challenging. It is in the same way a person moving here from Mexico with little understanding of English faces major challenges as well. Being deaf is not a disability, but rather a different ability.

            My friend is in school to be an interpreter “for the deaf.” She said something that I thought was beautiful. Because many people think of the deaf as being disabled, the act of being an interpreter becomes almost like a charity to some lower class. But that should not be the case. I thought of it this way: Rather than being a “charitable” ladder for deaf people to climb up to the hearing person’s level, as an interpreter she would like to be a bridge to allow communication to flow between two very different types of people of equal footing. She says she is studying to be an “interpreter for the hearing and deaf,” which is more appropriate, because I can’t understand their language either.

            This almost immediately caused me to think of some of the scripture from 1 Corinthians that we’d been reading in my Wednesday night bible study. “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need for you’; or again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’ ”, says Paul in 1 Corinthians 12:21. If God designed both of us, I cannot assume that anyone’s design is deficient.



  1. That’s pretty insightful, Billy. I totally agree with what you’re saying, we’ve talked a lot about that kind of stuff in my diversity class. There apparantly used to be some community on a little island in New York where almost 25% of the people were deaf. There was some genetic trait that, because of the small gene pool on the isolated island, kept resurfacing pretty frequently. Well, everyone on the island new sign language and the deaf there weren’t viewed as a handicapped but were seen as just another group of people who had different abilities than the others. It was quite normal for someone to be deaf there and so they were never looked down on. I forget the name of the place but I can probably find some more info on it if you’re interested.

  2. The island you heard about is called Martha’s Vineyard. The island is actually off Cape Cod, MA. Unfortunately, there isn’t a “Signing Community” there anymore. It was cool because no communication barrier beteen Deaf and hearing people. Everyone there was bilingual with English and American Sign Language. In spite of there not being a signing community there, its still a cool place to go, lots of history. I did find out though, that they are trying to recreate what was once at Martha’s vineyard, in South Dakota. Kinda cool.

    Heres a site about what they are trying to do.

  3. Um we all have certain abilities and disabilities, but lacking one of the five senses is diffenantly a disability

  4. It’s only a disability if we assume that we are the benchmark.

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