How do three lovely young ladies who are profoundly deaf speak fluently with confidence, joy, and Irish accents?
The answer? With patient faith, hard work, and tender help from parents, sisters, teachers, and their Heavenly Father.
The Ferguson sisters, Deborah, 21, Julie-Ann, 16, and Heather, 13, are from Bangor Branch, Belfast Northern Ireland Stake, and were born with hearing impairments. Two more sisters, Amanda, 20, and Gail, 18, 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 bubbling personality and eagerness to live life to the fullest have bridged some hearing problems. Since graduating from seminary, she has participated in the Cub Scouting programme, serving in assistant leadership positions.
Among other hardearned awards are trophies of all shapes and sizes for numerous sports, including badminton, squash, swimming, and football.
“When we held the 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 can dance like the rest.”
Whether dancing or studying, no obstacles will prevent Deborah from enjoying every programme the Church has to offer. “I will be serving as 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 witnessed the aspirations of her family and is determined to open doors for others less blessed with opportunity. She is taking a university course in British Sign Language and after three years 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 seminary. “It’s a great programme. I gain such a lot. Seeing things through the eyes of ancient people 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 sensitivity to others’ needs.
Those listening ears are greatly missed by Julie-Ann and Heather for many months each year. These two leave home, family, and Irish stew behind and attend school at the renowned Mary Hare United Kingdom Grammar School for the Deaf in Newbury, England. Due to the rigorous academic requirements, for one pupil to be accepted at this outstanding school is an accomplishment (a bit like being chosen for Oxford or Cambridge), but for two from the same family to attend is something of 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 Saviour 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 keep up with the speakers. I want to understand every word of their message. People are kind and write things down for me, but often talks go too fast to get the full story.”
Both girls are excellent lip readers, however, and are equipped with the latest hearing aids. So skilled are they becoming that they are even learning another language. Both are coping well with French. “It’s difficult,” says Heather. “I have to concentrate much harder than students who hear.”
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 JulieAnn, “and if the congregation doesn’t drown out 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, with wildly waving arms, acting like I’m stupid or something.”
“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 get a question the first time, and if I ask ‘pardon?’ 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 much like tiny 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.”
“I get a similar sensation when I think of my sister Deborah on her mission. I think she’ll be homesick for a while, leaving Northern Ireland. It’s such a lovely country. I remember how I felt. But we’re all excited for her. I look forward to hearing how she gets on. My patriarchal blessing tells me I’ll also go on a mission when I’m 21.”
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.