Deaf History Then and Now
By Mary Young
From the I500’s, the days of Pedro Ponce de Leon, history records that it was the churches that contributed to an understanding of the deaf. Ponce taught children with signs and finger spelling used by the Benedictine monks, a nonspeaking order. To the hearing world, then, speaking ability was the hallmark of an educated person. This attitude, perhaps still prevalent today, may help explain why deaf people have had to struggle so hard to prove their intelligence to a skeptical speaking world. It was speech, not language that was held to be the mark of a man, that which distinguished humans from beasts. “Speech flows immediately from reason and from intelligence like a fountain,” wrote one of Ponce’s contemporaries. Aristotle concluded that hearing conveyed sound, and sound was the vehicle of thought. The views of the Church, too, held out no hope for deaf people for the apostle Paul had written that “faith cometh by hearing.” These remarks, taken out of context, were widely interpreted to mean that deaf people could not be taught the Christian faith because deafness “hinders faith itself.” Ponce’s instruction of deaf children was seen as nothing less than miraculous because Ponce also taught his students to speak.
From 1817, when the first American school for deaf pupils was founded, until the 1860s, sign language was thought to be indispensable. Interpreters respected and admired sign language, cultivated their signing skills with care and pride. In the 1860″s; however, a new generation tried to replace the use of sign language with lip reading and speech. The new theory viewed sign language as inferior to spoken languages, fit only for “savages” and not for civilized human beings. Susanna E. Hull, wrote in the American Annuals of the Deaf that since spoken language was the “crown of history,” to use sign language with deaf was to “push them back in the world’s history to the infancy of our race” since it was the language of the “American Indians and other savage tribes.” Why had this theory gained so much ground? Evolutionary thinking pervaded American culture in the years when oralism became dominant. It was no coincidence that the oralist theory began to transform the deaf education in the United States during the same period that evolutionary theory was radically changing how Americans defined themselves and their world. The most important aspect of that change for deaf people occurred in attitudes toward language — specifically, the relative status and worth of spoken languages verses gestured languages. By 1900, nearly 40% of American deaf students sat in classrooms from which sign language had been entirely banned. By the end of World War I, nearly 80% of deaf students were taught entirely without sign language. Oralism remained orthodoxy until the 1970s when sign language began to return to the classroom.
J. A. Ayres felt that with the use of sign language “the deaf-mute is restored to his position in the human family, from which his great loss had well nigh excluded him, and is enabled to hold communion with man and with God.”
The problem with deafness for the manualist generation was that deaf people were cut off from the word of God and therefore from knowledge of the immortal soul. If deaf people were not “led to conceive of a thinking agent within them, distinct from their corporeal existence,” then they could “form no correct concept of God, who is spirit.” Sign language resolved the problem.
If this is true, then it is our responsibility to evangelize these lost souls of the Deaf the English speaking, American culture has opened its land and heart welcoming people with a variety of different languages and cultures. American Sign Language (ASL) is an accepted language with its own rules of grammar and syntax. ASL is more than hand gestures but incorporates the formal signs, body movement and expressions.
According to our records the United Pentecostal Church during the late 1960s a few deaf started attending a church in St Louis, Mo. Daniel and Alta Bradshaw, a husband and wife team, began what is presently known as National Deaf Evangelism (formerly Ephphatha Deaf Ministry). Rev. J.T. Pugh and Rev. J.R. Ensey from the Home Missions Division witnessed Deaf Ministry in action and invited them to present Deaf Ministry at the General Conference at Atlantic City, NJ. These men endorsed the first seminar retreat in Lebanon State Park, TN during March 1972. The response was overwhelming and over 127 attended the first Deaf Conference.
Though in the past, history tells us that they held out no hope for deaf people because the apostle Paul had written that “faith cometh by hearing,” there is hope for the Deaf who attend our churches and receive this apostolic experience. The Deaf speak in a language not taught by man but in a beautiful heavenly language as they receive the precious gift of the Holy Ghost. We now have Deaf ministers and evangelists, nationally certified interpreters and Deaf saints who have the truth of the Apostles doctrine, “And in that day shall the deaf hear the words of the book.” Isaiah 29:18
The United States is the home of over 28 MILLION deaf. Out of the 28 MILLION less than 1.5 – 2% of Deaf attend any church denomination and less than 1% of our United Pentecostal Churches have an active Deaf work with Deaf members.
The Pentecostal church experience is truly one that must be experienced in its fullness in order for the participants to receive the maximum benefit. Spoken language church’s, with their auditory language, work very hard to make sure that everything is at its best so that the hearing members may receive maximum benefit of the singing, preaching and other events. Much care is taken to produce clear sound and eliminate unwanted noise and distraction.
The same should be true for Signed language church members. Though their language is visual and not auditory, much care must be taken in order to be sure that they receive maximum benefit. However, it is visual “noise” (distractions from sitting in the back of a hearing congregation or in a balcony) that must be eliminated and a clear line of vision of the preacher/singer/other events must be our goal to accommodate the needs of the Deaf.
Deaf tend to be communal, in that they go where there are other deaf and they need a skilled, interpreter to facilitate communication appropriately for the Deaf to have a correct concept of God, who is spirit. Proper use of this language both in communication and songs/dramas must be considered. Drama teams and Sign Choirs err in adapting ASL, to fit their “production” by choreographing it to be “pretty.” Signed music is beautiful and appropriate when used in the right settings. Drama teams and Performers should consult with knowledgeable people in the field of signs. “Expressive signing” is not sign language or ASL, it’s a dramatic presentation. In an effort to reach THE DEAF population we must respect their culture and their language.
Hopefully being made aware of the historic struggles the Deaf have endured concerning their language, you will understand why the Deaf are offended by such productions.
Are these the reasons we have less than 1% active Deaf Ministries in the UPCI organization?
The words of the late Pastor W.I. Black taken from the Deaf Ministry Publication Ephphatha in August 1976 still rings true, “No church can be blessed unless they have a burden for people from all walks of life, regardless of social standing or physical differences. We pray that this vision will reach the length and breadth of our entire fellowship. We pray that every church will find what it means to be able to reach someone with the gospel who cannot hear the preaching of the Word.”
During a time of an economic downward spiral, Deaf Evangelism is on its way up. There were 88 deaf and 168 hearing in attendance at the 2008 UPCI Deaf Evangelism Conference in the flood ravaged state of IOWA. One hearing and three Deaf people were baptized and one hearing and two Deaf people received the Holy Ghost. The third Deaf person already had the Holy Ghost. At these modem day historical events, interpreters learn to respect and admire sign language and Deaf culture, cultivate their signing skills with care and pride.
From, “The Louisiana Challenger”/June 2009/Page4-5. By Mary Young