Listen with Your Heart

By Anne C. Bradshaw

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    How do three lovely young ladies who are completely deaf speak fluently with confidence and joy?

    The answer? With patient faith, hard work, and tender help from parents, sisters, teachers, and their Heavenly Father.

    The Ferguson sisters, Deborah, 23, Julie-Ann, 18, and Heather, 15 are from Bangor Branch, Belfast Northern Ireland Stake, and were born with hearing impairments. Two more sisters, Amanda, 22, and Gail, 20, along with parents Peter and Lillian have normal hearing. The girls’ grandparents were also born deaf and mute.

    But communication is no problem for this outstanding family. Trust in the Lord and determination are working miracles in their lives.

    Proof of this is abundant in Deborah’s many achievements. Her happy personality and eagerness to live life to the fullest have overcome some hearing problems. Since graduating from seminary, she has participated in the Church Scouting program, serving in assistant leadership positions.

    Among other hard-earned awards are trophies of all shapes and sizes for numerous sports, including soccer, badminton, squash, and swimming.

    “When we held a youth dance festival,” said Young Women president Sister Geddis, “Deborah was the best at keeping on the beat, moving perfectly with the music.” Deborah explains, “Although I can’t hear sound, I feel vibrations through the floor, and with care I can dance as well as anyone else.”

    Whether dancing or studying, no obstacles will prevent Deborah from enjoying every program the Church has to offer. “I hope to be a missionary,” she says. “I love to serve and have a great desire to spread the gospel amongst other people with hearing disabilities.”

    Her younger sister Amanda feels the same way. Although able to hear perfectly herself, she has seen her family achieve goals they have set and she is determined to help others less fortunate. She is taking a three-year university course in sign language for the deaf so that she will be qualified to interpret and teach.

    “I’d like to begin by sharing the gospel with my grandparents, aunt, and uncles who are also deaf,” Amanda explains. “I feel they’re missing so much. I’d love to help them learn the truth.”

    Learning plays an important part in sister Gail’s life too—especially in seminary. “It’s a great program. I gain such a lot. Reading the experiences of people in the scriptures has helped me appreciate my own family and their present struggles.”

    Gail has an outstanding talent for dealing with children. Acting as “ears” for younger sisters for many years, she has developed patience, kindness, and sharp sensitivity to others’ needs.

    Those listening ears are greatly missed by Julie-Ann and Heather for many months each year. These two leave home and family behind and attend school at the renowned Mary Hare United Kingdom Grammar School for the Deaf in Newbury, England. Due to the high academic standards, for one pupil to be accepted at this outstanding school is an accomplishment, but for two from the same family to attend is almost a miracle.

    “Letting the children be educated so far away has been a traumatic experience for us all,” Brother Ferguson says. “But through prayer we found comfort and confirmation that our decision was right.”

    “We all send letters once or twice a week,” says Julie-Ann, “and there’s a special telephone at school which allows three-way conversations between pupil, interpreter, and parent, so we don’t have to go too long without help from home on any problem.”

    “Brother and Sister Williams from Newbury Branch pick us up for church each Sunday,” says Heather. “We enjoy that. There’s a lovely feeling among the members.”

    “I love learning everything I can about the Savior and his church,” says Julie-Ann. “I do home-study seminary, and it always helps me. I find sacrament meetings a bit frustrating sometimes, especially when I can’t understand every word the speakers say. People are kind and write things down for me, but often speakers go too fast for me to get all the details.”

    Both girls are excellent lip readers, however. In addition, they use hearing aids. They are becoming so expert at understanding others that they are even learning another language—French. “It’s difficult,” says Heather. “I have to concentrate much harder than students with normal hearing.”

    Reading music has been part of their lives since infancy. “Our mother used to point out how notes go up and down in hymnbooks at church,” says Julie-Ann, “and if the congregation doesn’t sing louder than the piano, I can pick out the beat and sing hymns.”

    “We play recorders the same way,” comments Heather. “I feel pulsation of sound through my feet and legs, and with plenty of practice, we get the tunes right. We have a good orchestra here.”

    Although Julie-Ann, Heather, and Deborah use their talents to achieve results in life equal to, and often better than, those of people without hearing impairments, they are sometimes disappointed and hurt by the attitudes of many people towards their disability.

    “I prefer to be treated just like everyone else,” Heather says. “It’s really embarrassing when I’m in a crowd and someone starts speaking to me very slowly, waving their arms to emphasize what they are saying. It’s as if they think I am stupid and couldn’t understand them otherwise.”

    “Yes,” agrees Julie-Ann, “it’s nice to be accepted as part of the group, spoken to normally, and not stared at as if we’re odd. I often feel like telling people, ‘I’m exactly the same inside as you are.’ It makes me heartbroken and depressed when they are afraid or don’t want to understand me.”

    “That’s right,” Heather adds. “I don’t always understand a question the first time someone asks. If I ask them to repeat it, they often say, ‘Oh, never mind,’ and go away! I’d rather they try again and again, so we can learn about each other. I don’t like brief conversations with only ‘Hi!’ or ‘How are you doing?’ I’d prefer to talk properly, long discussions, not too fast or too slow, but real conversations with facial expression and feeling.”

    Perhaps because of a certain isolation that deafness creates for them, all three girls have developed a close, personal relationship with their Heavenly Father.

    “I talk to the Lord in prayer much of the time,” says Julie-Ann. “I feel the presence of the Holy Spirit strongly and am constantly grateful for the promptings I receive. We watched a video of general conference. During remarks about keeping high standards and avoiding friendships with the wrong crowd, I felt so warm inside as the Spirit testified this was important advice. I could have cried. I didn’t want that wonderful feeling to go away.”

    The Fergusons seem to be a part of fulfilling prophecy. In Isaiah 29:18, the prophet wrote, “In that day shall the deaf hear the words of the book.” [Isa. 29:18] Not only are the Fergusons hearing the truth of the gospel themselves, they are becoming well educated and prepared to share those words with all who care to listen with ears, eyes, hands, and hearts.

    All photographs by Brian K. Kelly

    Deborah, inset, Julie-Ann, and Heather Ferguson have found many ways of communicating when others are willing to listen with more than their ears.

    Gail and Amanda help interpret the world’s sounds for their sisters, while their parents, Peter and Lillian Ferguson, assure all their daughters that they are loved by both heavenly and earthly parents.