(information by Deaf Bible Society: https://www.deafbiblesociety.com/how)
Why are the Deaf one of the most unreached and unengaged people groups?
Throughout history, Deaf people have been shunned or cast out of hearing communities. During the time of Greek philosophers Aristotle and Socrates, Deaf people were thought to have no intelligence. During Hitler’s reign, Deaf people were tested and tormented in science experiments. In the United States during the 1800s, certain groups tried to pass laws to prevent Deaf people from marrying and having children. Even within the last century, Deaf people have been forced into orality and the use of signed systems that represent spoken languages, instead of being allowed the freedom to use their native sign language.
In 1960, William Stokoe, an English professor at Gallaudet University, began researching and writing about signed languages. For the first time, signed languages became recognized as full fledged, living languages, independent of spoken languages.
The work of translating the Bible into other languages has been around for centuries. For example, the English Bible was translated in the 1500s. Yet, not one of the world’s 400+ known sign languages has a full Bible translation yet.
The historical mistreatment of the Deaf, the recent recognition of sign languages as unique and distinct languages, and the stark reality that no full Bible translation exists in any sign language yet—these reasons, and more, all contribute to the Deaf being one of the last and most unreached and unengaged people groups with the Gospel.
What are the major differences between spoken and signed languages?
Communication is a basic human need. Language is the primary way to communicate, but its expression is different between the hearing and Deaf communities. Spoken languages are expressed through oral and aural means—with the voice and heard by the ears. Signed languages are expressed gesturally and visually—by the hands and face and seen by the eyes.
Sign languages are not derivatives nor are they “simplified” versions of a spoken language. They contain structures and processes different from what spoken languages use. A prime example of this is American Sign Language. It is not English. It is its own distinct language.
Why isn’t there a universal sign language?
The idea that there is a universal sign language is one of the biggest misconceptions about the Deaf. Just as hearing people have many languages, the Deaf have many sign languages too. Like spoken languages, signed languages are naturally occurring in communities all over the world. Spoken languages use specific sets of sounds to build words. Those words are organized in particular ways with unique meaning to create sentences and paragraphs. Signed languages, on the other hand, have rules for specific combinations of handshapes, movements, locations near/on the body, and facial expressions to create signs. Each sign language organizes its signs in specific ways with specific meaning to create sentences and paragraphs. Just as spoken languages vary between themselves in how they build words and organize sentences (English is completely different from Chinese), signed languages vary as well. Sign languages also have language families. The spoken languages of French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian are all derived from Latin. The same concept can be applied to some groups of signed languages. Sign languages within the same language family have similar roots, but are all still very different.
Why don’t Deaf people just learn to read?
The hearing community begins learning how to read at a very young age. For most hearing children, this means starting with the alphabet and attaching sounds to each letter. From there they begin piecing together the letters to create words, then the words to form sentences. But for Deaf children, learning to read is a different process. They can’t hear the sounds in a word, so they have to memorize the sequence of letters as a full word, attach the sequence to a concept, then the concept to a picture. For example, w-i-n-d spells "wind." When we hear this spoken, we know whether it’s the movement of air or what’s being done to a toy. Sound gives meaning, but for a Deaf person, it’s still the same seen sequence. Context and contrast are what help give meaning. This is often why reading a sound/ text-based language is not considered a natural part to a Deaf person’s native sign language.
Some Challenges for the Deaf/HOH Community: