Friendship Is the First Step


The youths watched with folded hands but unbowed heads as one of their members gave the opening prayer. They had to, or they’d miss what he was saying. No one could hear a word, partly because he wasn’t speaking and partly because they were all participants in the annual deaf youth workshop at Brigham Young University.

For the 53 youths, the annual ten-day event was one of the few opportunities they have to meet others like themselves. Friendships formed at the conference tend to endure long after the workshops are over.

The ten-day conference activities included singing, dancing, and mime study but were not limited to that. “We try to have a balance of social, educational, intellectual, and spiritual experiences,” Dr. Ross Weaver, director, observed. These experiences included washing the Provo Temple windows, a tour of Temple Square in Salt Lake City, water skiing, boating, amusement park excursions, individual enrichment seminars, an overnight camp, and a testimony meeting.

Dr. Weaver first got the idea for the annual workshop while watching a group of hearing young people pull each other through a mud puddle in a tug-of-war. “They were on campus for a priesthood-sponsored youth conference and seemed to be having a world of fun. I was not surprised to find that there were no deaf youth among the group—there seldom are. The idea suddenly hit me—why not have a workshop just for deaf youth, where young deaf people could communicate with each other in their own language? In addition to social and recreational experiences, why not plan sessions that can be taught by leaders in the various fields?”

Those who work with the deaf realize that a deaf youth, usually alone in a speaking world, is often treated as a stranger in a strange land.

Another problem is that some teachers tend to ignore the deaf, while others forget the rest of the class in an attempt to help a deaf student.

Workshop participant Paul Chamberlain explained: “In one math class a boy could not say divide, so the teacher dismissed the rest of the class while she worked with him for 45 minutes to teach him to say the word. It would have been better for her to see if he understood how to divide.”

He continued: “Some get so hung up on the speech part that they fail to teach the deaf person the basic education skills. Parents need to help their children develop their other talents, such as electronics or photography.

“Deaf people often feel they are a minority group. Hearing people seem to think that because someone is deaf he is stupid. Sometimes they treat us as though we were little children two years old.”

Another problem facing deaf youth is the job market. Paul said a deaf carpenter he knew was unable to keep a job because the superintendent couldn’t talk with him unless the carpenter faced him. The superintendent felt this was unsafe.

Wayne Bennett, a junior high instructor in Ventura, California, noted that he has been turned down for house insurance because of his deafness. The former deaf missionary also told about a deaf friend who worked in a supermarket. “When the boss needed his attention, he would throw an orange at him. Finally, one day my friend, with a watermelon in his hand, went up to the man and said, ‘The next time you throw an orange at me, you get a watermelon in the head.’ The young man, who was six feet tall and weighed 200 pounds, had no further trouble.”

A person who has no hearing of his own has several options. These include the fitting of hearing aids in some cases, and the learning of sign language and lip reading in others. He also may get special instruction designed to help him work around his limitations.

Concerning hearing aids, Paul said, “The hearing person can shut out the extra noises he doesn’t want to hear, while a hearing aid amplifies all sound.” The result is somewhat like trying to pick out a conversation in the middle of an active boiler factory.

Some favor the teaching of lip reading to the deaf, others sign language and finger spelling. Some favor utilization of both methods.

American Sign Language, or Amaslan, is a more rapid means of communication than finger spelling. Although the basic motions are made with just one hand, the rest of the body comes into play. Sign language is not universal, but the deaf around the world can communicate one with another through common gestures. Sally M. Todd, Dr. Weaver’s workshop assistant, noted, “In Mexico the deaf tend to use both hands more than we do, and the Japanese signing is staccato in nature.”

The word order for Amaslan does not follow English. Also, Amaslan doesn’t use articles or verb tenses. If a deaf youth were to sign, “I have eaten,” he would make the gesture for “I,” then for “eat,” and then signify the past tense through either shaking his hand or gesturing over his shoulder.

The deaf are not limited to deaf skills alone. They are also able to perform as mime actors, to dance and even sing.

Because of signing, the youth are masters at mime, often teaching their workshop mime instructors what they’ve been using among themselves. During one of the mime sessions, a hearing instructor was trying to explain how to show a wall. Because he didn’t sign, he had a translator at his side. After making his explanation, he had them turn to a wall, with the intention of talking them through a mime procedure. He opened his mouth once or twice, then realized his predicament. He had to tap the youths on the shoulder to get their attention. When they realized what had happened, they all burst out laughing.

For the deaf, dancing is relatively simple. They get the sound through vibrations in the floor. If that way is not open, then they watch others who are dancing and follow suit. Because the tempo is carried within themselves, they are not limited to dancing only when music is being played.

Singing is more difficult. The deaf youth sign-sing, a graceful form reminiscent of South Sea island dances, with the emphasis even more on the motions of the hand. Wayne explained that it takes about two hours to learn a new song and to get the rhythm down so the motions are synchronized with the recorded words.

The skills learned at the conference reinforce what the deaf have been learning, but even more important, the association with one another and the learning of gospel principles in their own language has changed the lives of some. One young man from Arizona decided to become active in the Church after completing an annual workshop. He now wants to go on a mission, as does another who thought it would be impossible.

The workshop gives some a chance to bear their testimonies in public for the first time and offers opportunities to share the gospel with nonmember youths attending the conference.

Sister Todd said: “Those who’ve been out in isolated areas and not with other deaf people love just to talk. From 8:00 A.M. to midnight they share feelings and ideas with someone else who knows just what they’ve gone through.”

Dr. Weaver added: “I feel that most of the communication problems the deaf have are through misunderstandings by hearing people. The deaf I’ve met are able to communicate quite well if the hearing person has the patience to stop and listen.”

Those who work with the deaf emphasize that hearing members of the Church can help the deaf within their own wards or branches. Sister Todd said: “Teachers with a deaf youth in a Sunday School class should remember to use a lot of visual material, role playing, and other good teaching techniques. Deaf youth also depend on the evidence of concern and love by the teacher.”

She added that while signing is a perpetual learning experience, finger spelling can be learned in an evening. “When you start to finger spell, you’ve won their hearts because a lot of people just don’t bother. If you try to learn their language, they’ll meet you 99 percent of the way. On a Mutual activity basis or at Sunday School, shake hands with them, put an arm around them, and let them feel included, let them feel loved. They are no different from anyone else who doesn’t speak the language we’re accustomed to.”

Dr. Weaver observed that if a deaf youth is going to succeed in life, he has to learn to be more aggressive than most. “That’s their only salvation in a hearing world because many of the hearing aren’t going to stop and listen to them and take the time to have them come in. The person who waits for someone to ask him to do something will be waiting a long time.”

Wayne added: “One of the biggest problems is the unease on the part of the hearing person because he can’t communicate by any known means. A hearing person can walk away from it, but a deaf person cannot. Many times it’s up to the deaf person to put the hearing one at his ease.”

Sister Todd added: “Remember, the first thing a deaf youth reads is your feelings. Initially you can communicate spirit to spirit. It is surprising how rapidly the youth can learn sign language. Friendship and love are the first steps.”

[photos] Photos by Floyd Holdman and Craig Law