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June 17, 2003

Loud and clear

From: - Jun 17, 2003

by Marc S. Botts, Editor

Boy, interpreters for the deaf sure will give a person an earful when they have a bone to pick.

I had the good fortune of angering quite a few recently with a story I wrote about deaf ministry. I say good fortune, because it caused me to take a closer look at what interpreters do for the people they minister to.

They take their work quite seriously.

Interpreters from across the country sent e-mails lambasting me for what most called irresponsible journalism. I offended them, it seems, by insinuating a person could be well on the road to being a deaf interpreter in a matter of weeks.

After the first half dozen or so, I did take a closer look at what I had written and, while I never wrote a person could become an accomplished interpreter in just a few short weeks, I did simplify the monumental task of interpreting to deaf people with American Sign Language (ASL).

ASL is classified as a true foreign language and learning it is no less a task than learning Spanish, French or Russian. Perhaps it is more difficult because it is not a written language.

What Jon Barr of Silent Word Ministries in Trenton, Ga., was trying to tell me is that a person can learn enough signs in a matter of weeks to begin communicating with deaf people. I paraphrased what he said and the result caused quite a stir -- for both of us. One went so far as to suggest Barr be flogged for what he said. Another said I had better hope a deaf advocate he knew didn't find out where I lived.

One of the best things about writing for online publication is that words can be changed almost as quickly as they can be read. Print publications do not afford that luxury. I was able to tweak what was written and shut off the flood of angry e-mail.

I regret the bad start I got off to with the interpreters, because the point of my article was not to trivialize the amount of time and dedication it takes to learn ASL.

First Things First

The point I was trying to make -- and still assert -- is that people who feel called to ministry with the deaf need not wait until they have studied ASL for several years to do so.

But, those people should seek out a deaf ministry that has someone certified in ASL. There, they can learn how to best use their particular gifts to minister to the deaf.

If they are dead-set on starting a deaf ministry at their own church, they should bring someone onboard who is fluent in ASL.

Secular interpreters are required to take classes and demonstrate proficiency in order to become certified. Should churches offer the deaf anything less?

Not according to Robyn Little, an ASL interpreter in Burlington, Vt.

"Deaf and hearing advocates of the deaf want access to the same things the hearing have access to," Little wrote in an e-mail. "They want clear, concise communication opportunities and are pushing to have this in place for all venues of society."

Poor interpretation, Little writes, can mean the difference between understanding the gospel and utter confusion.

"I know of a situation where a new signer was put on the interpreter stand during a sermon about the blood of Christ and its value," Little wrote. "She signed 'worthless' instead of 'worthy' throughout the entire teaching. It took explaining to the deaf who were confused what the teaching was really about. It took explaining to the novice signer what her error was and how important it was to know the vocabulary and sign it clearly."

It's More Than Words

Little says it takes months for a hearing person to gain a deaf person's trust. That level of trust is commensurate with the level of ASL proficiency.

"That's just common sense for any language that is bridged through an interpreter, be it sign, French or Spanish," Little wrote.

Babette Leonard of Keller, Texas, agrees that simply knowing vocabulary and "signs" does not necessarily convey the meaning of the message.

"This is probably why so many deaf individuals don't return to a church after one visit -- it's just more of those 'hearing' people looking nice up there signing words," she wrote. "If you want to share the gospel, you need to invest time, thought and preparation into interpreting a message."

Interpreting requires the ability to listen, break the message down into chunks of information, determine the meaning and change that meaning into an equivalent ASL utterance.

"This utterance includes appropriate facial expression, body language, non-manual markers, etc.," Leonard wrote. "The interpreter takes into consideration the presenter's affect, intent (instructing, criticism, encouragement, etc.) and must look at connotative and denotative meanings. All of this happens within split seconds, while he is yet listening to another sentence, phrase, or utterance."

Debe Staten, a state-certified interpreter in Oklahoma, wrote that interpreters have a great responsibility to correctly translate not only the words, but also the intent and nuances of the speaker.

"We are the weakest link in the communication process," Staten wrote.

Shirley Wilbers, who is a co-administrator of a Web site for deaf ministry , wrote about the struggle deaf people face in a hearing world.

"You might not believe this, but there are still people today who don't think deaf (people) should drive, or have responsible jobs, or have access to the same news media that we do," she wrote. "The reason that your (article) struck such a nerve is that deaf people have struggled long and hard to have their culture and their language treated with respect and honor…to be treated as equals in our society."

Her comments reinforce my notion that churches need to have ministries for the deaf people in their communities.

But, her comments and those of the others have caused me to think this through a step further.

If we, as Christians, feel led to answer a calling to deaf ministry, then let's do it right. Let's keep in mind the people we are seeking to serve and be excellent in all we do.

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