After weeks of snow and cold, I couldn’t have been more eager to get away, if just for a brief visit, to a “quiet little town.” Passport in hand, I waited with nervous anticipation. This was to be the trip I’d remember for the rest of my life, I was sure of it…
From the moment I arrived in town, it was obvious that something was different about this place. Though small, it was a bustling town, to be sure. From a distance, I could see a couple chatting with one another, hands moving rapidly as they talked. But as I drew closer, I discovered something; this pair wasn’t merely punctuating their words with gestures.
They made no sound, yet were talking fluently – with their hands! As I looked around, I realized that no one was speaking and nothing was making noise. Everyone was conversing in this manual language. Everyone, that is, except I. I didn’t know this language! Suddenly overcome by a wave of trepidation, I wondered how I’d be able to negotiate the remainder of my trip.
Navigating the town proved to be a challenge. Every shop was full, and people teemed out into the street as I made my way through this silent land trying to book a hotel room, make travel arrangements, and even order pizza at a local restaurant.
In all, I visited a dozen places and each one was an exercise in patience, not for me but for those who would assist me. Personal space became a real issue, nearly to my very skin, as I began to experience anxiety and struggled to remain calm in a place where I had to be vigilant about my surroundings in a way that I’ve never considered.
In addition to the hurdles of routine activities, I felt particularly alone in the face of natural disasters which struck beginning shortly after my arrival. In all, flood, tornado, and fire swept through within two hours. These emergencies were confusing and frightening for me as I looked to those around me for clues as to what was happening.
The only law of the land, “No Voice,” was strictly enforced by police officers who paced sternly; each armed with a pen poised for action! After three written “warnings,” offenders would be sentenced without due process to time in the town jail. This was Deaf Town and I was a stranger.
Though my surroundings were unfamiliar and often uncomfortable, I found a wonderful, welcoming spirit among the citizens of this town. Their patience bordered on saintly as they repeated things and even began to teach me to use their manual language, called ASL. The joy I found in their eyes told me that we were much more alike than different.
I am not disabled, yet I was experiencing a handicapping condition, communication barriers. Likewise, people who are deaf do not consider themselves to be disabled but experience the same handicapping condition I did. I was at Deaf, Deaf World, an immersion experience in deaf culture put on this past Saturday at Vineyard Church Columbus.
Co-sponsored by Joni and Friends Ohio and Deaf Services Center, this turning-the-tables event was truly eye-opening for the 250 hearing participants, including me. I always thought that being deaf would be peaceful. I could not have been more wrong.
During my brief time in Deaf Town, I learned that not being able to hear can be sometimes frightening, and even tiring as one seeks to interact with the hearing world among people who don’t speak American Sign Language (ASL), finger spell the ASL alphabet, or even give patience and grace. Being deaf or hard of hearing is not physically obvious, so it is sometimes easy for those of us who hear to assume that a person is deliberately not listening or to become frustrated at having to repeat ourselves.
But, Jesus calls us to “love one another” (John 13:34-35). I believe that we need to look one another in the eye and find a common language, that of love, which will help us to overcome communication barriers wherever we find them.
I thought there was something different about Deaf Town. But by the end of my adventure it was clear that the “something different” was me; I was forever changed by my time in this place.
Lisa Brown serves as Church Relations Coordinator at Joni and Friends Ohio. The local office of Joni and Friends International Disability Ministry is located at 249 Bellbrook Avenue in Xenia. For more information about training for disability ministry call 352-4095 or visit www.joniandfriends.org/ohio.