Culture At Large

Learning from silence during Sign Language Week

Jonathan Downie

Graham Turner, a colleague of mine at Heriot-Watt University, recently gave his entire department the silent treatment. No, it wasn’t a hissy fit or an academic version of artistic temperament. It was part of the British Deaf Association’s Sign Language Week. In a show of solidarity with the deaf community, he decided British Sign Language would be his only means of in-person communication for seven days.

Of course, his solidarity stops short of becoming deaf himself. As he wrote recently, he can’t switch off his hearing, and he can switch back into spoken English in an emergency. In addition, of all the places to go silent for a week, our university is not the most challenging. Heriot-Watt trains signed and spoken language interpreters, so there is always someone around to lend a hand (if you’ll pardon the deliberate pun). In fact, when Turner wanted to discuss something with a visiting speaker, he could turn to a world-leading expert on sign language to help.

For deaf people in the United Kingdom and worldwide, the situation is very different. There is a well-reported worldwide shortage of sign-language interpreters - a situation that means restricted access to work, education and healthcare for deaf people. Couple this with the historic and continuing lack of awareness of deaf issues and you can see why deaf people have worse mental and physical health than the general population.

In considering Turner’s vow of silence, something about it struck me as Christ-like. Terms like “missional” and “incarnational” are often thrown around in the church, but it’s only when I see acts like this that I understand what these words might mean.

Who in their right mind chooses to sacrifice something, even something small like the use of a language for a week, when they don’t have to? What kind of person voluntarily places restrictions on himself so someone else can benefit?

What kind of person voluntarily places restrictions on himself so someone else can benefit?

If you are a Christian, the answer is obvious.

I am not for one moment suggesting that Turner has suddenly become some kind of self-sacrificial superstar. In truth, since he can sign and is surrounded by signers, his sacrifice is not exactly huge. But there is still something worth reflecting on here.

In one passage of Scripture, the Apostle Paul writes “I try to find common ground with everyone, doing everything I can to save some.” His point was that, for the sake of helping everyone see that the Gospel speaks to them, he worked hard to be like those he was trying to reach, without losing his own identity.

Turner will never himself be deaf. To that extent, he can never fully empathize with what it means to live in a society that prioritizes oral communication. He hasn’t lived through battles with discrimination or through conversations with medical professionals about whether your child should have a cochlear implant. Yet for one week, he can share some of the frustrations that deaf people face every day.

Many of us will never live through deafness or blindness or discrimination. Yet we can try to get close enough to those who do to share their frustrations. If we have power and a voice, that’s all the more reason to listen to those whose voices are silenced and play our part in enabling them to be heard.

Topics: Culture At Large, News & Politics, World, Justice