Fifty-six Deaf Students—and Me


I’ll admit it—I was suddenly scared. I stood at the back of the room as the workshop was about to begin. There were 56 youths and a handful of adults all seating themselves for the workshop. Although everyone seemed to be getting along fine, I couldn’t understand a thing that was going on. They were all deaf. I didn’t know sign language. And I was supposed to interview them. Help!

Sally Todd, director of the BYU Workshop for Deaf Youth, walked in the room and spotted me, looking somewhat forlorn and bewildered. She introduced herself, and we sat down as the workshop was about to start.

I didn’t know what the opening song was or what the exact words of the prayer were, but I began to feel something. The students acted so excited to be there. Whenever a question was asked, hands flew up, waving impatiently. Laughter came easily. There was an excitement for life that made me want to be near them.

“Since thou wast precious in my sight, thou has been honourable, and I haveloved thee” (Isa. 43:4).

I watched. I watched as they were taught leadership skills, realizing that this conference is the only time many of them are able to actively participate in formal instruction about the Church.

“Sunday school and church are hard for most of us to understand, incomprehensible to some, so it’s exciting to be able to come here and understand teachings about leadership, missionary work, and the gospel,” explained Clark Gaudette, a 19-year-old from Mesa, Arizona. There are deaf branches throughout the Church, but many deaf members live too far away to attend them.

I watched as afterwards they made preparations for dinner, a Hawaiian luau. They had no problems communicating. A touch on the arm instead of a “Hey you” got a new friend’s attention. With rapid gestures of hands and full cooperation among the participants, pineapples were soon sliced, colorful decorations were put up, and the Hawaiian luau was about to begin.

“We’re so excited to be able to sign (use sign language) that the meal takes second priority,” they explained as I watched their delicious meal turn cold as they happily communicated with each other.

Later in the conference, not wanting to always receive service and never give it, they armed themselves with hoes, shovels, and grubbies and headed out for a welfare farm. Because some of the students are overly protected by family and friends at home, at least one service project is planned during the conference to teach that service is for all.

I watched bicycles wobble and weave along the road, noticing that this was a first attempt for some! Some were even riding bicycles built for two!

“It is hard to ride a bicycle built for two because we can’t talk—and if we turn around to sign, well, that could be dangerous. So it’s concentration, cooperation, and full speed ahead!” commented Melanie Hansen from Orem.

And I watched their kind actions. All were a part. Those with partial hearing helped out if the need arose. Although some didn’t know sign language and some didn’t read lips, all were willing to help each other out.

“There are no popular groups or cliques,” said Patty Johansen from Warrenton, Oregon. “We are all friends—finally belonging and understanding.”

“Even every one … is called by my name: for I have created him for my glory, I have formed him; yea, I have made him” (Isa. 43:7).

I listened. They explain to me about being deaf.

“We are separated from people,” Patty explained. “People are afraid of us. They are afraid to ask questions.”

“It can be an isolated world, but I’m not unhappy,” said Gary Roush, a returned missionary from Salt Lake City, Utah.

It amazed me that, in describing their world, they steer away from anything negative. Instead of self-pity, they describe the advantages.

“A lot of bad influences like certain music or improper language don’t affect us,” Gary explained. Barry Critchfield, a hearing person and bishop of the deaf branch in Provo, believes that deaf people are more sensitive to the Spirit because there is less noise interruption.

“I’ve never been ashamed to be deaf. We realize that we are children of God, and so we have a good attitude,” Gary added.

I listened as they anxiously told me how much they love to come to conference.

“We come here and our testimonies are strengthened. Sometimes there are teachings of the gospel we aren’t sure about, and when we come here, we learn for sure,” said Clark Gaudette.

“The workshop helps us because we see others not letting their deafness hinder them and they are succeeding. It helps us realize, ‘Hey, we’re not handicapped!’” said Dave Watts of San Rafael, California.

“I like to come to the workshop because we learn so much about missionary work,” commented Travis Walker from Indiana. Travis had decided the year before while at the workshop to go on a mission. “We went to the MTC to watch the missionaries. It was fun to watch them learning our language. We even watched a demonstration on Japanese sign language. The trip deepened my desire to go on a mission.”

The workshop also had an extra highlight when circumstances enabled President Kimball, Sister Kimball, and Elder A. Theodore Tuttle to visit with the students for a few minutes.

And then, of course, they enjoyed the workshop because they could communicate; they could understand.

“The ability to communicate is probably the most important thing to a deaf person. That is why deaf people love to be with other deaf people. At last, we can really communicate. Long after a sacrament meeting for the deaf is over, you will see the members talking and talking and talking,” said Gary Roush.

“Bring forth the blind people that have eyes, and the deaf that have ears.

“Let all the nations be gathered together.” (Isa. 43:8–9.)

I joined. It didn’t take long to join them; I wanted to share in their love for life. I put my pencil and paper down, forgot about interviewing, and decided to just be their friend for a while. When it was time to eat, I planted myself in the middle of the group and tried to communicate. Many could read my lips and some have partial hearing, so it wasn’t too hard. But once in a while, right in the middle of conversations, I would be stumped. So I would motion for them to wait a second, and then run and get an interpreter.

Willingly they aided in my efforts to learn finger spelling and all the simpler signs in just ten minutes. “Oh, that’s a Y. Now what was an S again?” They smiled at my excitement when I learned how to spell my name, say “I care,” “I love you,” and other phrases.

Before long they came up to me, tapped me on the elbow, and just started talking or signing or pantomiming. It was, at times, like a game of charades, but we were communicating! They told me about their dorm activities, the humorous skits they had performed that morning, where they were from, their schools, their majors—just about anything. When I couldn’t understand them, they would tease me about my handicap.

As the afternoon progressed, I forgot that I was supposed to be getting information and quotes for a story. It had slipped my mind. We sat around in a circle in the shade, swishing the flies away from our food, and talked and laughed. Suddenly I looked around and realized that we had become friends.

“I will call you friends, for you are my friends” (D&C 93:45).

I learned. This group who sat around me had taught me that although different roads are taken, the goal is the same for all—to be His witnesses.

Sure, they couldn’t hear, but I felt no pity. They had taken their stumbling block and shaped it into a stepping stone. I wonder if the word handicap and all its stereotyped connotations shouldn’t be discarded. They weren’t handicapped!

All but two or three, including the leaders, were deaf—and each was a success story. Paul Chamberlain, one of the counselors, has his masters degree in guidance and counseling, has been on a mission, and was married in the temple. Bishop Sam Judd of San Fernando Valley, California, also a counselor, has taught and/or baptized well over 200 deaf people.

But it’s not just the counselors who have succeeded. Patty Johansen is a senior at BYU, majoring in psychology and happily living the life of a college coed. Do Thank is a Vietnamese refugee whose family disowned her for joining the Church. She’s now attending Utah Technical College in Provo, Utah. There are many who have been on missions and many more are planning to go. And the list goes on!

“It’s not just the workshop that helps them—it’s the other kids. They realize that others have the same problems. There is an awakening. They’ve been conditioned to be isolated, not to venture out, but that’s changing. They’re taking the step, making the move,” said Bishop Critchfield.

My world, too, had broadened. Realizing that I would be leaving soon, I felt reluctant to say good-bye. I hate good-byes anyway, and this one was going to be hard; they’d given me a new insight and understanding about a faithful people.

As we knelt in prayer, I watched as solemn faces with innocent eyes gratefully gave thanks.

“This people have I formed for myself; they shew forth my praise” (Isa. 43:21).

[photo] Photo by Eldon Linschoten

[photos] Photos by Greg McDaniel

[photo] Zest for life was common at the workshop for the deaf. Eager participants jumped at the chance to go rafting or join in group games. Communication was full of the simple, happy joy shared whenever young Latter-day Saints congregate