The poor deaf!

Address delivered to Bristol Diocesan Synod, 23 November 1991

I am sure that if you were asked how many native languages exist in the British Isles you would list: English, Welsh, Gaelic, Erse, Manx and Cornish, and there it would end. Yet there is another language in daily use among over 30,000 of the population and one which has recently been recognised as official by the European Community. It is a language which is never spoken, and one which is almost too impossible to write down in an easily intelligible form. It is gaining hugely in popularity so that teaching classes are always heavily over-subscribed. British Sign Language is enjoying a boom. Arcane and exotic to the outsider; as ordinary, at times, to the user as a note for the milkman.

Who are “the Deaf”? (And there’s a mistake – almost as bad as calling them “the disabled.”) People who are deaf do not look upon themselves as being ‘disabled’, only disadvantaged. Centuries of well-meaning but misguided attitudes have left the deaf community as an oppressed minority culture – and no linguistic group can exist without a culture to which the language gives expression. One major feature of deaf culture is cold dinners: you cannot sign clearly when holding a knife and fork!

There is so much confusion about the terminology. Those with a hearing loss – hard of hearing – those who become deafened, through meningitis, rubella or road accidents, are lumped together with the profoundly, pre lingually deaf – as if they were all the same, except by degree. Ten and a half million people in the UK, skilfully ignored until they open their mouths or hands.

Oh, the poor deaf! If only they could be made as like hearing people as possible, then they could be ‘cured’ and somehow made to fit in with the hearing world, which is ‘normal’. A couple of months ago the Evening Post reported a story of the birth of a son to a couple both of whom are profoundly deaf. The mother asked if her baby was ‘normal’. “Oh, yes,” said the nurse, “he’s fine. He can hear!” Consternation for the parents.

A poor exegesis of Mark 7 on Ephphatha Sunday (Trinity 12 in the BCP) has at times led to the persistence of oppression of the deaf community. Teach them to lipread and they’ll get on with the rest of us. How can you lipread a language like English which is foreign to you, so unlike your own, which doesn’t need words or sounds?

And some of these people are Christians! The Saviour has touched them, and their hearts are restless until they find their rest in Him.

Earlier this year I led a study weekend in London for deaf Christians who wished to test their vocations for ministry. Ordained, Lay, Individual, it didn’t matter about classification. These people were on fire for God. Their commitment was strong as they wrestled like Jacob with the Lord.

There are great changes occurring in the work among profoundly deaf people and the Church. The Council for the Deaf has been disbanded, and a new Committee for Ministry among deaf people forms an integral part of the Advisory Board for Ministry (formerly ACCM). There were moves to transfer this work into the Board for Social Responsibility, but this may have meant that the deaf community would still be viewed as a disabled or handicapped group of people; a most retrograde step.

Although this ministry demands highly specialised skills in communication and understanding of deafness and its effects, it must also relate to the church in the diocese and seek to integrate deaf congregations into the life of the diocese.

Often the best approach is likely to be a team anchored by a priest or deacon who will, in time, draw others into this ministry so that the diocese is covered by a network of skilled ministers, some of whom should develop from the deaf congregations themselves.

[It seems likely there was more to the address, but the manuscript ends here. – SJC]

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