Searching for a Sign

By Jennifer Johnson

At dinner the other night, Nina asked, “If a deaf person never hears language spoken, does he still think in words?”

01_ASL_JNInterestingly, I had just talked to Chad Entinger earlier that week about these very concepts—which had blown my mind. I proceeded to blow hers, explaining that deaf people aren’t just signing everything we’re saying, the order of the ideas may be signed differently than we would say them, and there are many different sign languages just as there are many spoken ones.

“But wait—everybody has trees. Why don’t they all have the same sign for tree?” she asked.

I shared what I had learned from Chad, reminding her that every oral and written language also has its own word for tree.

It’s easy to understand her confusion; most of us lucky enough to hear have never had to consider these questions, and while we understand the obvious need for a visual language, we probably haven’t puzzled out why it also obviously needs to be different than the one we speak.

After talking to Chad, I grew interested in the many different sign languages being used around the world. While searching for information online, I came across a great story and advertisement from none other than a phone company. Late last year, Samsung Turkey announced the creation of a video call center for the deaf and hard of hearing. As part of the announcement, they identified a hearing-impaired young man named Muaharrem who lived in Istanbul, developed a plan with his sister, Ozlem, and spent a month teaching sign language (the Turkish version, of course!) to the adults in his neighborhood.

On the appointed day, Ozlem walked around with Muaharrem like usual—they stopped for bagels, caught a cab, and strolled by an outdoor market. However, the clerks, the cab driver, and even the passersby who “accidentally” walked into Muaharrem all communicated to him in his language—and he grew progressively more confused.

At the end of the ad, Muaharrem and Ozlem ended up in a city square where, on a large video screen, a Samsung representative explained the new product and signed, “A world without barriers is our dream as well.”

At this point the entire crowd appeared, all signing to him and celebrating with him, and he broke down in tears. (You can watch it at youtu.be/UrvaSqN76h4, and I dare you not to cry a little, too.)

Obviously this was a promotional stunt for Samsung, but it was an incredibly kind stunt; for one day, Muaharrem could communicate with more than just his family and closest friends. I suspect his tears were not only for the joy of having this experience for the first time, but the recognition that for the first time those people really understood the barriers he faces.

If we’re not deaf, we have no idea what it’s like, just as those of us who are white don’t know what it means to be a minority, men don’t know what it’s like to be women, and young people have no idea how it feels to be old. My inability to experience life as someone else is not my fault, but my unwillingness to empathize with their experience is. I appreciate what Deaf Missions is doing to bring the Bible to the deaf, but I also appreciated the gentle reminder to be intentional about understanding those in my community, and my faith community, who struggle with challenges I don’t. Whether or not we can hear, there’s a lot to be learned by listening to each other.

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