Like many ‘hearing’ people, I assumed there was only one universal sign language for Deaf people everywhere.
But then I heard something amazing.
I learned there are hundreds of unique sign languages around the world, and that all around the globe Deaf people have unique visual languages built around one-of-a-kind cultural quirks and nuances.
If someone uses American Sign Language in Kenya, for example, it’s like trying to speak English to someone who speaks Swahili. The two sign languages are as different as chalk and cheese.
For the Deaf everywhere, their eyes become their ears. Hearing people live on “ear”th – but the Deaf live on “eye”th.
Globally, there are more than 350 unique sign languages – the only or primary languages used by 70 million Deaf people worldwide. Yet the world’s most precious book, the Bible – the best-selling book of all time – is available as a complete work in only one sign language: American Sign Language.
Millions of Deaf people – around 98% of the world’s Deaf population, in fact – have never received the message of the gospel.
As CEO of Deaf Bible Society (www.deafbiblesociety.com), I’m often asked: “Why do Deaf people need to have the Bible translated into sign language? Why can’t they just pick up a Bible and read it?”
For most hearing children, reading begins with the alphabet and attaching sounds to each letter. But for Deaf children, learning to read is a difficult process because they only see a sequence of letters, void of sound. So, from the earliest age, Deaf children communicate through visual sign language – their natural and native language, their “heart” language.
Not just ‘gestures’
Sign languages are true languages, not just random gestures. They’re rich in syntax and grammar. Because every sign language is unique, subtle movements can have different meanings. For example, leaning forward or eyebrows raised can send a different message. And gestures have different meanings in different sign languages. The sign for “bathroom” in Kenyan Sign Language, for instance, could be interpreted as “the corner” in American Sign Language. Imagine the confusion!
That’s why it’s so critical to make God’s Word available to every Deaf community in every corner of the world in their own unique sign language. In the Old Testament, it says: “In that day, the deaf will hear the words of the scroll…” (Isaiah 29:18, NIV). At Deaf Bible Society, we believe that giving all Deaf people the opportunity to “hear” the Word is a crucial part of the Great Commission to preach the gospel to everyone.
We’re not talking about physical hearing, of course. We’re talking about receiving spiritually God’s love, compassion and salvation through the visual presentation of His Word.
For the Deaf, seeing is believing.This is why we’ve joined illumiNations (https://illuminations.bible) – an alliance of the world’s leading Bible translation agencies – to make sure the Bible is literally “in the hands” of the Deaf so they can see the “good news” and share it with others.
For 2,000 years, since Jesus walked the earth, the Deaf have been in the spiritual shadows, cut off from God’s Word and the gospel. The enemy of our souls has had his way for far too long, but now he’s got a fight on his hands.
‘I want to know’
illumiNations’ “I Want to Know” campaign aims to translate God’s Word into every language on earth – including every sign language – by the year 2033, just 12 years from now.
Because of technological advances in the Internet, video and smartphone apps, we’re now able to provide free access to translations of parts of the Bible in over 25 sign languages – and we’re working on more in partnership with the Deaf community and other organizations worldwide.
Remember the day Scripture opened your eyes and your heart to God? You can give that gift to others – including the Deaf – and sponsor one translated verse for $35. You can also share the verse you “want the world to know” on social media using the hashtag #IWTKBible.
Together, we can make sure that God’s Word is finally available to everyone -- and, at long last, that the gospel is seen everywhere by ‘Deaf eyes’.